Celebrities have colonized Africa

George Clooney’s involvement with the Satellite Sentinel Project has sparked renewed discussion on celebrity forays into social causes. (See below for a round-up of related posts.) I’ve been chewing over the issue, because celebrities are going to be involved whether we like it or not. I say, let’s figure out how to make the most of their involvement.

Review of the charges

Criticism of celebrity involvement in aid/development seems to fall into three major categories. First, we criticize their messages. Celebrities can bring attention to a cause, motivating political action or donations. But most of them didn’t become famous for their analytical skills or nuanced understanding of world affairs. They’re prone to distorted and inaccurate messages. Of course, they’re not the only ones who make such errors: advocacy organizations are prone to distorted messages, journalists often use a Whites in Shining Armor narrative, and some philosophers promote simplistic morality. But the celebrities make these errors with much broader audiences. So it’s reasonable that they would attract much broader criticism.

Second, we’re suspicious of their motivations. Even the most altruistic of celebrity activists recognize, in the back of their minds, that advocating for a worthy cause is good for their careers. I’m sure they see it as a win-win, but to the rest of us, it can often feel like they’re exploiting the issues and the people they claim to care about. I think we’re justified in being offended by that. When the celebrities make self-aggrandizing statements about their personal responsibility, they may think it proves their commitment, but instead it looks like their own ego is more important to them than the cause.

Third, and related to the first two, we question whether their involvement is a net positive to the cause. The last line of defense for a celebrity activist is “awareness raising” — i.e. even if the celebrity is an egomaniac and spreading misinformation, at least s/he is prodding regular citizens out of their apathy. But that’s only a good thing if people can be mobilized around good solutions, and the tactic of celebrity-awareness-raising does nothing to guarantee this.

(Over-)Analyzing the issue

With the above criticisms in mind, I want to view celebrity involvement through a slightly different lens. There are two sides to this lens: the halo effect and mission creep.

Halo effect

On the public side, we have the halo effect. It’s a cognitive bias (i.e. a mistake we all make a lot) in which our perception of a person’s traits influences our perception of their other traits. For example, if we think someone is friendly, we may assume that s/he is also intelligent. This cognitive bias can lead to mistakes in many situations, but it’s especially dangerous when dealing with actors, whose entire craft involves creating perceptions. PR agents create a likable public persona for an actor because that improves the box office numbers. Ditto for musicians. The halo effect then leads us to conclude that they’re also pretty smart and well-meaning. This leads us to accept and even support political and philanthropic involvement from actors and musicians.

Mission creep

On the flip side, from the perspective of the celebrities, we have a personal version of mission creep: you take what you do well, and then try to make it apply someplace else. There’s a similarity between the way celebrities shift into social causes and the way successful people of all fields try to move from one arena to another.

Personally, I think mission creep gets a bad rap. Sometimes expansion works. When Will Smith went from music to television to movies, he was hugely successful in each because he’s a fabulous entertainer. That’s his core strength. It didn’t work out quite as well for Michael Jordan’s foray into professional baseball in 1994, but his incredible athleticism ensured that his performance was at least respectable. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a less obvious case: going from body building to movies makes some sense, but the shift from movies to politics only makes sense if you recognize the drive and political savvy that propelled him throughout his career (I’m told this comes out clearly in the 1977 documentary about him). Regardless of whether you like his politics (or his movies), you have to admit that getting elected governor of California is no small achievement.

Here’s an interesting case: Bill Gates. He made a shift from the computer business to philanthropy on the strength of his brains, management skill and (of course) money. Is he successful in his new endeavor? If money spent is an indicator of success, then the answer is a resounding “yes”: his foundation has committed nearly $24 billion since its founding. If positive impact is an indicator of success, then the answer is probably “yes” again. But, if evaluating success requires that we look at the opportunity costs (i.e. how else Gates might have spent his money), then the question gets more complicated. It gets at the much larger questions (what is “success” in development/aid, how do you establish counter-factuals, etc.) — but I digress…

Halo effect + mission creep = Where things go wrong

Most actors and musicians got famous on some combination of artistic talent and personal charisma. Those are strengths. Based on the principles of mission creep, these strengths land many of them in roles as spokespeople. With enough coaching, they may even be able to sound like experts. At this point we get into trouble because the halo effect kicks in. Celebrities have a way of short-circuiting the debate: their celebrity status highlights their message at a level disproportionate to the actual value of that message. People assume the celebrity must know what s/he is talking about. That message becomes dominant. This is bad news in a field where there are no single, obvious right answers.

How can we make it better?

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think we’re going to keep celebrities out of aid. But I do think we can learn how to use them better. I suppose one response would be dueling celebrities: Sachs gets Bono on his side, but only if Easterly gets Bieber (sure, he’s young, but that means you’ll reach a whole new demographic). But that points to another dimension of this conundrum: people who believe in their issue or approach have no problem with using a celebrity to drown out other messages.

Maybe one principle would be that celebrities should only advocate for coalitions, rather than for specific projects or organizations. Celebrity endorsement can spark donations and political action from the general public, but I’d like to see that energy directed by a group of issue experts who have to come to some kind of consensus, rather than by whomever George Clooney happens to know. On a similar note, another principle might be to have celebrities advocate together for general issues, rather than carving up issues and competing for the public’s attention. Another principle would be to always encourage further education, in addition to action.

Maybe I’m grasping at straws here. One thing I know for sure is that we can’t expect the celebrities to suddenly figure out how they can be best involved. We’ve got to figure that out for them.



Other recent commentary

General commentary on celebrity involvement with development and aid:

  • William Easterly argues that Lennon was a rebel, but Bono is not.
  • Daniel Drezner interprets Easterly’s column as a call for dummer, simpler celebrities.
  • William Easterly responds that the problem is the use of celebrity as a trump card for logic or evidence.
  • Paul Currion argues that we dislike having celebrities involved in development issues because we’re uncomfortable with the fact that certain people are more important than others in our culture.
  • Madeleine Bunting says he whole celebrities-in-aid thing is complex, and points out that causes need celebrities to get attention.
  • J. (Tales from the Hood) starts to warm up to Sean Penn’s work in Haiti, now that Penn has stuck around for a while and started to learn about how aid works, rather than just mouthing off about aid agencies.
  • Dave Gilson compiled a map of the celebrity scramble for Africa (pictured above).

Commentary on Clooney, Sudan and the Satellite Sentinel Project:

  • Laurenist rips into Clooney and the satellite project.
  • Saundra Schimmelpfennig was disappointed when George Clooney lashed out at critics rather than engage with the actual criticism.
  • Ian Thorpe dissects Clooney’s response a bit further from the perspective of knowledge management (of course) and what uncertainty means for decision making.
  • Jenny Stefanotti comes to the defense of the satellite project and Clooney’s involvement in it.
  • Crispin Burke criticizes the usefulness of satellites to provide useful information, and connects Clooney’s efforts to Network-Centric Warfare theory.
  1. Nice post.

    However much we might feel uncomfortable at times with celebrity involvement, I think it is here to stay and not always on the terms we might like since the incentives on all parts are too great.

    For the celebrity they are motivated to be involved because they want to do something to make the worlds a better place and believe their fame gives them the ability to do it, or because they want to shill their latest film and clean up their image, or some complex combination of the two. (their motives are as complicated as those of aid workers!)

    For aid agencies and campaigns – celebrities are a great attraction since they can get all sorts of public attention that real experts and activists can’t get. George Clooney gets more media attention and is probably a better front for fundraising than John Prendergast. Celebrities can even open the doors to governments since many politicians want to get their pictures taken with celebrities (sad but true).

    BUT celebrities can also be risky since they are usually not experts in their field, might go off script with their own views (they have their own opinions and are used to being listened to whatever they say sensible or not), and of curse their private lives are very pubic so any embarrassing antics can quickly come to light.

    From an agency point of view its hard to pass up the potential that celebrities can bring, but you need to be careful who you pick and use a principled approach to using them.

    From a public consumer point of view the best thing is to say “it’s only a celebrity – let me read something by the real experts”. I wonder how far we are able to do that, for areas beyond our own expertise.


  2. […] Sentinel Project has sparked renewed discussion on celebrity forays into social causes. (See below for a round-up of related posts.) I’ve been chewing over the issue, because celebrities are going to be involved whether we like […]


  3. […] For more on celebrity activism, see: The halo effect and personal mission creep: Clooney, Smith, Jordan, Schwarzenegger, Gates, Bono and …. […]


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