Celebrities: bridging the gap?


I spent 12 weeks working as media and communications assistant at Sightsavers, an non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Haywards Heath, Sussex. The communication-team held the view that the majority of people living in the UK don’t identify with politicians or show interest in international development. The majority of the staff at Sightsavers want to change this and believe celebrities aid the process. Many of the staff, who work to influence change in governmental decisions on foreign aid, told me that they think it is vital that the public begin to understand the causes of global poverty.

Sightsavers’ press team believe that the most effective way of attracting the attention of the UK public is to supply national media outlets with content that includes a person in the public eye (who is well-liked) showing an interest in tackling global poverty. It is thought that this will encourage the public to do the same and begin to engage with the politics of international development. The main objective for using celebrities is to make international stories compelling and accessible in the hope of attracting new audiences. It is also thought that support from high profile people raises Sightsavers reputation as a credible organisation. The team expects celebrities to raise funds, but only as temporary one off donations.

“A much-loved and respected celebrity has the ability to influence not only his or her own fans but also opinion formers – the politicians and policy makers who we are trying to make sit up and take notice. 

Of course, choosing the right star name can be a bit of a minefield; we need to be sure that anyone acting as a Sightsavers ambassador and role model is genuinely passionate about our work. 

That’s why we prefer to work with figureheads who either have a first-hand experience of what it is to be blind… of our programme work (such as Lorraine Kelly…), or of one of the countries where we work” (Sightsavers, 2014a).

There are reports and research from 2007-2012 which dispute this argument. This research contain data on: public support for foreign aid, public interest in global poverty and public engagement with celebrities. Couldry & Markham (2007) suggest that people with high levels of interest in celebrity culture show little interest in politics and are the least likely to vote or campaign. Brockington (2011) demonstrates that celebrity culture is prominent however, the majority of the public are not particularly engaged. He argues that celebrity advocacy is populist in appeal, but not very popular.

However, Inthorn & Street (2011) take the argument that citizens may not respond to all celebrities in the same way. Their research demonstrates that it is an error to treat celebrities as a homogeneous group. They contend that celebrities who pursue political causes that are close to individuals’ hearts are – in theory – an alternative to a system which the UK public distrust. Celebrities seemed “the more genuine and trustworthy politicians” (Inthorn & Street, 2011, p. 4). This argument seems to support the view held in the press team at Sightsavers, but is it accurate?

The UK Public Opinion Monitor (Institute of Development Studies & The University of Guelph, 2012) aims to understand how everyday citizens see the world in which we live, and if or how attitudes change over time. Focussing on attitudes towards famous people, celebrities and their work in the public domain, 2,842 respondents (broadly representing the British public) had limited engagement with celebrity magazines and celebrity television programmes, with greater than 50% saying they avoid them.

Rojek (2001) distinguishes between types of celebrities and identifies three categories: ascribed greatness (royalty) achieved renown (highly-achieving athletes) and attributed glory (media/reality TV stars). David Attenborough and Lenny Henry can be used as examples of people in the public eye who hold some moral authority for their involvement with fundraising but are not obviously on the ‘celebrity circuit’ (Darnton & Kirk, 2011).

Sightsavers press team held the view that potential celebrity supporters could only be approached if the public respected them. They needed to be understood as famous and credible. A famous person that Sightsavers press team was enthusiastic about approaching was Lorraine Kelly. In 2012 Kelly was awarded an OBE for her services to charity (Kelly, 2014). Kelly is a Scottish TV presenter and a journalist and having worked with her multiple times (Sightsaver 2014b), Sightsavers contacted her during the application process for the BBC Radio 4 appeal. The Radio 4 appeal is a weekly programme that highlights the work of a charity and appeals for donations (BBC, 2014). Sightsavers applied with two objectives: (1) to raise awareness of Sightsavers and promote it as a credible organization to Radio 4 listeners, and (2) to raise at least £15,000 in donations from the appeal (Sightsavers, 2014c). In the appeal application it states that charities need to contact a presenter. The presenter must donate their time for free and as part of the application each charity has to suggest a list of presenters and why they would like them to read the script (BBC, 2014).

In the project briefing notes there were some points of consideration:

“Its important for the celeb to have a personal connection to the charity/cause so their voice is emotive.

Don’t approach anyone before discussing the long list with the producer

Don’t be afraid to chase agents, they won’t be too proactive given they’re not making any ££…

Give short deadlines for reply date (2 weeks max) so you can chase them when they don’t reply. Approach them one at a time so we don’t have to turn people down!” (Sightsavers, 2014c)

Kelly was the first person on Sightsavers’ list. It was a priority for them to have a celebrity presenter who had seen Sightsavers’ trachoma projects in Kenya, as this was what they wanted the public to engage with. Trachoma is a contagious bacterial infection of the eye, causing inflammation and irritation on the inner surface of the lids (Sightsavers, 2014d). A colleague said:

“She is… our ambassador, which is a bit stronger than just a supporter; she is well known and well-liked… and has a …voice that most listeners would recognise even if they missed her introduction” (Sightsavers, 2014e).

In the project brief, this was written

“Research has shown that Scottish and Irish accents for voice-overs are more likely to encourage listeners to donate to broadcast appeals” (Sightsavers, 2014c).

It also said that Kelly could promote listening to the appeal to her 460,000 Twitter followers.

Rather than broadcasting widely, Kelly was asked to promote Sightsavers’ work to a specific audience of her fan community and regular Radio 4 listeners (Sightsavers, 2014f). The message communicated was: Sightsavers is a leader in the prevention and treatment of trachoma and Kelly is a supporter, so Sightsavers must be a credible organisation. Sightsavers overall objective of using a famous person in this way is to contribute to the larger process of societal change. However, when it comes to evalutating, as Brockington (2014a) argues, it is extremely difficult to measure whether this one celebrity appeal could help enagage the public and have a lasting impact on society’s behaviour.

(This is part of a much longer paper, there is a bibliography! Please contact me if you’d like more information.)