The Common Good
July 2006

Celebrity Activists

by Kate Bowman Johnston | July 2006

Hollywood's humanitarian helpers direct more attention to global hot spots. But does it help?

An aid-worker friend in Darfur has sent e-mail updates during the past year about the escalating crisis there. They often included the worried questions: “Is this on the radar in the States? Does anyone care?”

I always answered, sadly, that despite some notable exceptions (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for one), Sudan largely went unmentioned in the mainstream press—that is, until mid-May of this year, when the issue consistently made it into the headlines. According to the Associated Press, the three network evening newscasts had devoted less than a combined 10 minutes to the conflict in 2006—and in under a week, that airtime skyrocketed. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Darfur.

Why? Certainly years of activist work was finally paying off. But another factor was star power. Actor George Clooney traveled to a Sudanese refugee camp armed with a video camera and his celebrity, then returned to speak at a well-attended rally in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, NBC’s medical drama ER aired a special episode featuring two attractive doctors getting their hands dirty in the African nation, with the actors appearing on news magazine shows to speak about the crisis.

Clooney and the ER docs aren’t alone. Chances are that by the time you read this, several other international hot spots will have had their moment in the limelight—thanks to a phenomenon Time columnist James Poniewozik calls “charitainment.” In Hollywood, it seems, philanthropy is the new black. From Meg Ryan to Angelina Jolie to the ubiquitous Bono, A-Listers are promoting a slew of humanitarian causes, from the fight against AIDS to the alleviation of Third World debt to trade justice issues, fueled by the knowledge that, as Poniewozik notes wryly, “in this world, nothing matters that does not have a camera pointed at it.”

Obviously, celebrity activism isn’t new; think of Audrey Hepburn’s tenure as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, or the string of musical benefits kicked off by George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. But the recent spate of celebrity activism is distinctive in its scale. For example, possibly hundreds of prominent actors, musicians, athletes, and other entertainers have signed on to support the ONE Campaign. These days, celebrities are in the news as much for exposure trips to distant lands as for the usual vapid exploits. Whether or not this is good for activism is the subject of much debate among those working on the ground.

The demand for celebrity sponsorship is energized by the millennial mandate to “go big” when it comes to political organizing. In contrast to a traditionally grassroots approach, many non-governmental organizations—weary of being sidelined or overlooked—have banded together to form social justice super-alliances. Coalitions such as the ONE Campaign (and its U.K. counterpart, Make Poverty History) act as umbrellas for dozens of independent groups, providing them not only with improved access to resources but to organizing’s Holy Grail: Visibility. A coalition like ONE works because it is too massive to ignore.

Visibility is the watchword for today’s organizations, as they seek to fix the short attention spans of a fickle public on issues they might otherwise consider boring, irrelevant, or too overwhelming to tackle. “Politicians don’t really have to address [debt or trade] because the issue isn’t in the public domain,” says Glen Tarman, coordinator for Britain’s Trade Justice Movement and a co-founder of Make Poverty History. “The reality is that unless you get your issue out of the business pages and into the broader media, you won’t build the climate for change. It’s just an absolute reality of the modern age.”

And nothing catapults issues into the public consciousness like a famous face—preferably a sexy one with a well-documented history in the tabloids. As political satirist Stephen Colbert has joked of celebrity activism, “Brangelina is raising awareness of the Darfur situation, but he/she also has the courtesy to captivate us with his/her baby bump.” But despite the bizarre juxtaposition of the realities of poverty with what passes for reality in Hollywood, America’s obsession with the glitterati can be extremely useful to nonprofit organizations. As Claire Lewis of Oxfam says, “Celebrities can turn something that is an issue in boardrooms and grey-suited meetings into a water-cooler moment and bring these subjects into cafés and pubs.”

Jennifer Coulter Stapleton, a spokesperson for founding ONE member Bread for the World, based in Washington, D.C., agrees. “I’m not sure why we’re so fascinated with celebrities, or why people listen to them—but I know that we do,” she says. “So as a person who’s trying to move people toward the movement to overcome hunger, then I have to recognize that and use that in every way I can. And God bless the celebrities for letting me.”

Organizations such as ONE and Make Poverty History typically divide the benefits of celebrity endorsement into three categories: increased public awareness, increased media interest, and increased political influence. The organizations I surveyed all reported spikes in Web-based responses and attendance at events when a celebrity became involved; Brad Pitt’s televised trip to Africa last year with Diane Sawyer meant that in-boxes overflowed with millions of inquiries and signatures to ONE’s petition. This response is especially typical of young people, whom organizers usually have trouble engaging. As Oxfam’s Lewis notes, 84 percent of British 16- to 24-year-olds who were questioned about the Make Trade Fair Campaign knew about it from a rock star, Coldplay’s Chris Martin.

Mainstream media outlets are also more likely to bite on a justice story if there’s a Hollywood worm on the hook. Stapleton says that when she pitches Bono to an editor, she gets “two more minutes” than if she were simply pitching Bread for the World. Similarly, Tarman chuckles over a story his Make Poverty History group was trying to get into The Financial Times. “[They] weren’t interested. But when we offered them [indie-rock icons] Radiohead, even a serious newspaper like the FT said they’d love to come and interview Radiohead! And Radiohead spoke about trade justice in a newspaper that would normally just feature CEOs and the usual business columnists.”

POLITICIANS DON’T appear immune to celebrity charm, either. When asked what they thought of the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, British government ministers said “they couldn’t ignore it, because it wasn’t just the campaign groups, it was all these public figures,” Tarman says. “They’re actually scared of the agenda when so many celebrities are involved.” Not so scared, however, that they’re unwilling to open their doors to actors or musicians; many of them are invited in for conversations activists wouldn’t be. Tarman said singer-songwriter Bob Geldof was able to work a trade justice clause into British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, ensuring that trade liberalization would not be forced on poor countries. “We wouldn’t have gotten that in,” Tarman says. “We as activists wouldn’t have been invited onto the commission.”

This is where celebrity organizing becomes unsavory. What does it mean that decision-makers can, to use Poniewozik’s only slightly hyperbolic example, “ignore Kofi Annan all you want, but blow off Lara Croft at your peril”? That entertainers are accepted into the inner circles, while those doing the work on the ground and in the streets are brushed aside?

Organizers agree that Hollywood and activism can make for strange bedfellows. Stapleton emphasizes that celebrity can’t be an end unto itself; she says it’s her job to engage constituents substantively and involve them for the long haul. Tarman admits that “some of the glossy magazines seem very, very strange when you’ve got one page with what’s going on [in the world], and then [advertising] from the very corporations that are lobbying governments to create trade injustices.”

Some nonprofits find the trend of celebrity activism so problematic they’ve opted out of it entirely. Africa Action, for example, is a small but influential Washington, D.C.-based group that has played an important role in addressing the Darfur crisis by pushing for a multinational peacekeeping intervention. They deliberately chose not to join the ONE campaign so they could focus a strong, nuanced message to their largely African-American and African-diaspora constituency.

Marie Clarke Brill, who directs public education and mobilizing for the group, says that “the closer you get to decision-makers, the more likely you are to make compromises. The challenge of that dynamic with a celebrity making those compromises is that the celebrity has not been elected by anyone, nor are they accountable to a broader movement of people working on that issue.”

Brill also rejects the utilitarian argument for putting celebrities at the helm of humanitarian campaigns. “As activists working for justice and peace, we look at our system today, and we say it’s not acceptable—and we work to change that system,” she says. “I think it’s the same thing when it comes to celebrities. Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s the best way to work. We need to start to organize in the way we would like to see power be distributed in the world.”

For Brill, this means privileging sustained, systemic change over initial numeric success or compromised victories. “At the end of the day, if we are going to be successful at achieving justice and peace, we need to be able to build a different culture in our country—one that really values the basic dignity of human life and understands that our liberation is connected to the liberation of people around the world.”

Of course, sometimes that dignity begins with affirming that a previously neglected person does, in fact, exist. “I wish I could bring everyone out here to see it all for themselves,” Oxfam’s Lewis laments. “No one with a heart could fail to be moved by Africa and see that something has to be done.” In that sense, perhaps it’s a good thing that all over the world, cameras are swinging toward the people of Darfur—even if it took a handsome white celebrity to convince them to focus there. Time will tell if the American public can get its collective nose out of People magazine long enough to be captivated by the dignity of very real, ordinary, lowercase-p people.

Kate Bowman Johnston is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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