Dan Brockington on celebrity advocacy in UK

Q&A | Dan Brockington: Celebrity advocacy doesn’t always work, but who cares?

Linking celebrities with humanitarian causes has become common practice over the past few decades. However, according to Dan Brockington, Director at the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) celebrity advocacy is not as effective, in the UK at least, as is commonly assumed. In short, more people think other people respond to the celebritisation of aid, and therefore that it works, than actually respond to it themselves. As Dan outlines in Celebrity Advocacy and International Development (2014), strategic celebrity alignments are often more potent in their ability to generate attention from other elite groups, like politicians and high-level donors, than the general public. Yet, despite the limited impact of such alignments in achieving development goals, it goes on. Sarah is currently working as a research assistant on another project Dan is heading, this time mapping the UK international development sector. So, you know: interview.

What drew you to look at celebrity advocacy?
I was trying to explain how it was that, in East Africa, you have a collection of prominent environmentalists, and prominent conservationists who have different interests in terms of the species they’re following, and the causes they’re promoting. Quite similar personalities – larger than life, powerful characters. But they shared one really interesting characteristic, and that was, they were white. I couldn’t understand what, in East African societies, was producing this white conservation. This led me to write a book called Celebrity and the Environment, which tried to explain that, and the answer I got was that they are produced, or raised up by their audiences. Their audiences are generally white Europeans and Americans, who expect to see white people saving Africa.

Did you have an experience of that yourself, where you’d been given celebrity in the context of environmentalism?

Or that push to put you on a pedestal?
No. No I have no participant experience at all.

What were some of your key findings when you started looking at it closely?
First off, and this surprised me – I had thought that the history of celebrity advocacy for development causes began in about 1984, 85, when Bob Geldof set up Live Aid and Band Aid and things. That’s certainly a high point, but Harvey Goldsmith, who organised the concert in 85, had organised in 78 a Concert for Kampuchea. There were concerts for Bangladesh in the 1970s. Amnesty International were working with celebrity in the 1970s – there was quite a lot going on, there was a build up to it. Nonetheless, with these precedents, there was an extraordinary explosion in the 1980s. It carried on with the Nelson Mandela concerts and things like that. But post-1980s it died away. You’ve got a reinvention which takes place after the mid-1990s, when Princess Diana comes in, War Child get involved. Because it was unfashionable to be associated with causes. When War Child’s album came out, that actually helped more contemporary musicians – these were the days of grunge – realise that maybe it could be a good thing. Post-2000 is when the history of systematically organised celebrity interactions with good causes begins. Basically, the charitable sector as a whole begins to work with celebrity much more effectively, and professionally, than it has done before.

What do you think sparked it? The fact the proliferation of those sorts of relationships was happening anyway?
I think the proliferation, yes. I think it became fashionable. You can certainly trace the growth in articles about celebrity and charity, right through the 1990s. That precedes the professionalisation. That suggests the fact that all this was going on required it to have a better organisation. A lot of the people I was talking to were the first, or sometimes the second post-holders of the celebrity liaison officer position. Before that relationships had been quite loosely managed, but they began to realise, actually, if we put resource into this we can get a much better return from it. The other surprise was the muted public response to celebrity – it’s not as popular a thing in Britain as one would expect – and also the fact that it just works so well with political elites and corporate elites.

So that’s where the activity was having the biggest impact? As far as donors go – getting a response from elites to donate finance? How did you measure the reaction and impact?
I’m saying that because of the way my interviewees talked about it. It’s incredibly hard to say that, because we had a celebrity who is this famous on this occasion, as opposed to one who is that famous on that occasion, that we got X more money. I don’t think anyone has been foolish enough to put it in those stark terms. It’s an incredibly imprecise science, if it’s a science at all. It’s about building associations between brands, and building long term relationships. Such that the brand of the celebrity and the brand of the cause match well together. If that happens, then it’s relatively cheap for everyone involved. Doesn’t cost that much to the celebrity. Doesn’t require that much time and effort from the charity. It means then that any return you get is based on costs which have been put in a long time ago.

Who did you talk to?
I never say who I talk to. It’s all confidential. But it was over 120 people. I was interviewing all the intermediaries – so, very few public figures themselves. Instead, people working for NGOs, as celebrity liaison officers, as press officers, as campaign officers. People working for the media, as journalists, whether print or photographic journalism, as commissioning editors of media channels, as editors of magazines. People working for the celebrity industries, as PR officers, as agents, as managers. And I interviewed people about their previous roles and their previous organisations. Quite a few people were celebrity liaison, but had been in agencies, managing public figures before.

Not in the NGO world.
No, they were agents of celebrities. Altogether it was 120 people, but organisations that were covered by that, and companies, was well over 200, in my interviewees’ collective experience. And it spanned 30 years or so. Right back to the 1970s when UNICEF was first getting its ambassadors mobilised.

Did they seem to feel that it was effective? That celebrity advocacy had a place?
Oh yes. But again you have to ask, effective in what way? Because, depending on the role of celebrity liaison officer, they might also be involved in getting things into the press. In which case they would have their own contacts, and their own way of spinning a story. But that in a sense approaches the problem the wrong way around. It’s not so much is it effective, but with whom does it work? That’s the answer I basically got, from different people, is that it’s really effective with the right audiences, and with the right sort of event. A very common theme which came out of the interviews with celebrity liaison officers is, you cannot just add a celebrity and make an event work. The event has to be robust, has to stand and fall without a celebrity there. When you bring the celebrity to a well thought-through event, at that point you can get something meaningful. Because part of thinking an event through is working out what the audience is. Likewise, with celebrity involvement, you have to work out what the audience is. Particular celebrities are effective to particular audiences.

And from what you’ve found, most regular people – most publics – are not so concerned with celebrity.
Most Britons are less interested in celebrity generally than most Britons think they are. The prevailing view amongst the people we were able to talk to and interview in our surveys is that celebrity is extremely popular. Yet it’s quite hard to come up with that demographic and say, yep that’s me. Even the viewing figures and the consumption figures of celebrity-rich media are reasonably small. It’s going to be different in other countries.

But you found it worked differently amongst elite groups? How do you define elite?
Elite would mean somebody who is influential enough, and has risen high enough, to warrant personal meetings with the lobbyists. This is why a celebrity works quite well. Once you get to that level – you’ve worked really hard to become your corporate leader, your politician. And you now live in the public domain in a way which others don’t. That means you get to meet in person people who we all meet in the newspapers. It’s one of the perks of progress, if you like. Perks of personal progress. So you want to do that, you want to take advantage of that. Moreover, if you’re a politician, particularly, your popularity matters enormously. And celebrities are people with popular followings.

Emma Watson, UN Women meeting, Brockington on celebrity for Impolitikal
UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson meets with Danilo Astori, vice president of Uruguay

There’s this article by Marks and Fisher, and their critique is that celebrity does animate publics, but it animates it on the politicians’ own agenda. The celebrity is wheeled in to support their causes. It’s not grassroots, it’s a top-down imposition. That may be true in some parts of the States, but in British cases what seems to be the case is that the public isn’t invigorated, but other elites are. And they think the public’s invigorated. It’s a smoke and mirrors effect. This semblance, this aura, of popularity. This is explicitly used by development NGOs. They have deliberately used this ability of celebrity to invoke the public in their campaigning. This conclusion is absolutely clear in black and white in Brendan Cox’s report. He says that the celebrity invokes a public, and we can use the presence of a celebrity to make a campaign look as if the public are engaged, even if they’re not engaged in the first place.

How would you hope that your work informs media interaction, public interaction with the celebrity world?
I kind of hope that this really boring question we have: do celebrities really care? That it goes away. Because it’s not very interesting for me. And it sets up the possibility that celebrities are somehow different from other people. We all know that anyone who volunteers, or works for a cause, has got a mixture of altruistic motives and selfish motives. It’s the same with celebrities. I’m not quite sure what difference it makes what the fundamental motive is. Even if that fundamental motive is knowable. I’m much more interested in whether it does what it says on the tin. Does it produce the access required? Does it produce the change desired? Does it produce the funds that people said that it was going to raise? I’m much more interested in what sorts of development understandings it communicates. What sort of world it reshapes. I’m much more interested in, what are the politics of engagement?

Are you going to continue to look at the topic?
I’m done now. That was really interesting, and it was satisfying to come up with a reasonably coherent story from it. I think there’s a lot of really interesting work to be done on celebrity advocacy and social media. There’s lots of really interesting work to be done on which sorts of viral campaigns work. You can now trace links that you could only guess at, or gesture at before. We’re now in the scenario where the belief in celebrity advocacy can actually, or the belief in the power of celebrity advocacy, can create that power. And you can count it on Twitter, retweets and so on. So there’s interesting work to be done there – and I’m delighted there’s lots of really good people doing that work. I’m working on long term poverty measures and livelihood change in East Africa.

You’re also working on a project tracking and analysing the operational activity of development NGOs in the UK. What led you to this as a subject, and what have you found so far?
I worked on a previous project that mapped conservation NGOs working in Sub-Saharan Africa. There was a lot of interest and engagement with that, and it produced some very interesting findings, about where the concentrations of skills were, and where they weren’t. When I joined SIID, SIID was a member of BOND and I realised there didn’t seem to be a similar mapping of the development NGO network. It’s too early to talk about main findings yet, but it’s plainly clear that there hasn’t been any authoritative list of who works on development and has a charity in this country. There is a significant representative organisation in the form of BOND, but they have some 400+ members, and we have around about 900 organisations that we are looking at.

Learn more about the project

The mapping project is being represented at a debate about whether there’s a future for small international development charities this week in London. Small charities may have limited financial resources to work with compared to larger organisations, but what do you view as their strength?
There are two things, the first is that, while they have three orders of magnitude less money than the larger organisations, they don’t have three orders of magnitude fewer partners. Their strength is that they are part of quite a rich network. And many of the largest organisations actually depend upon the smaller ones to do a lot of their delivery, and a lot of activities. The second is that you don’t have to be big to be effective, and many organisations don’t actually seek to grow continually – because they are big enough to achieve what they need to do. Sometimes small is beautiful, and that’s particularly true in development.

You’ve noted that one of the greatest misconceptions regarding international development is that it is something that big NGOs do to stop famine. If not humanitarian aid, what is development really about?
Development is not about aid or NGOs. Even if one takes the most miserable measurement of this, the finances, development NGOs, in the UK, spend around £6 billion a year. Which is about half of overseas development aid. That is in turn dwarfed by remittances, it’s dwarfed by foreign direct investment, it’s dwarfed by various forms of trade. Financially, development NGOs are insignificant in the bigger scheme of money moving around the world, to promote different forms of prosperity. But development is much more than about money and getting rich, development is about broader forms of prosperity. Development can take the form of projects which are introduced from the outside, but much more than that development is a series of immanent changes, that people do themselves. If development NGOs can be involved in catalysing that then I think they realise their potential.

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Dan Brockington is Director at the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) at the University of Sheffield. Find out more about his work.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.