From Angelina Jolie to Bono to Beyoncé, the progressive social landscape of the United States is filled with celebrities endorsing various social movements in an effort to raise support, attention and most importantly, funding for these projects. Due to the consistency in which organizations choose to use the celebrity factor over other methods of rallying support for social movements, it would be assumed that celebrity endorsement can be directly correlated with the change that an organization seeks to achieve. However, there remains a stronger argument that claims that celebrities in these capacities don’t receive the long-standing media attention that social movements require to truly illicit change—if these movements choose to go the celebrity route, they have to find a number of innovative ways to market their star power in a way that attracts a steady wave of attention (Thrall 364). Moreover, the strategies and tactics that are being poured into these movements reflects a notable shift in the relationship between American politics and the American public (365).
The International Journal of Press and Politics argues that the “’make noise—make news—make change’ model of celebrity advocacy is not an accurate description of today’s political and media landscape” (Thrall 364). Due to a media system that allows endless choices for the American viewer, the biggest challenge for social movements is finding a strategy which will put them at the forefront of the media in which their target audience is consuming. In most cases, this means tapping into the soft news outlets such as Entertainment Tonight or The Daily Show, just as many political figures often do in an attempt to reach potential voters that may not be reached through news sites, etc. Thrall puts it best when he states, “as a result of the media’s fragmentation, the scarcest resource in American politics today is attention” (363). It is for this reason that we see so many celebrities intertwined within the political landscape—and while some argue that this trend points to the “celebrification” of politics, Thrall argues that the trend of celebrity endorsements actually points to a much larger trend in American politics that begins with the media (365).
“Throughout history, changes in the structure and functioning of the mass media have led to profound changes in the strategies used by political actors and the dynamics of public opinion. Just as the television age gave birth to new styles of politicking and governance (including celebrity activism), so, too, the emergence of the Internet and the increasing fragmentation of the mass media are giving rise to new forms of politics” (365).
The findings from their studies suggested that while it appears that celebrity advocacy is a popular trend, celebrities actually “make far less news for their advocacy efforts than one assumes they would desire and less than the conventional wisdom predicts they should” (376). Thrall proposes two reasons for this paradox:
Firstly, Thrall points to the idea that advocacy groups didn’t take advantage of the mass media shift that came along in the 1960s—the study shows that while groups caught on to the fact that mass media was an effective way to capture the public’s attention, they did not understand the importance of having a specific strategy in mind, much like David Karpf points out in The MoveOn Effect when he discusses the idea that the Internet is not the revolution itself, but simply the tool for the people who will make a revolution—it’s knowing how to use the tool that makes all of the difference. This has resulted in intense competition for media attention among advocacy groups, and even those who succeed in strategy and are able to receive attention only enjoy it for a limited amount of time due to a shifting political and media agenda (376).
The second reason is closely related to the first, in which Thrall essentially claims that while advocacy groups have been shut out from what he refers to as the “traditional public sphere,” they have found other avenues to reach a mass audience through new media (376).
These reasons stretch to a further, broader point however: the changing themes in media have resulted in an overall change in political communication strategy, which includes the way advocacy groups use celebrities. This study ultimately concludes that while celebrities are “ineffective when it comes to shaping the mainstream political news flow,” they are actually more useful and effective through the use of less mainstream forms of media (381). This is similar to the study we read earlier in the semester that outlined all of the different ways in which the Obama campaign used new media to reach a larger number of people—if the campaign had restricted itself to only mainstream forms of media, the outcome may have been completely different. Thrall claims that the same strategy being used by advocacy groups points back to the political communication landscape.
It is at this crossroads that celebrity advocacy and politics actually meet, rather than the original assumption that celebrities themselves are intertwined with political agendas. Thrall puts it best in the following statement:
“Why, then, do so many believe that celebrities have taken over politics? The cause, we believe, is an understandable cognitive bias. We see celebrities everywhere in our society. When we see the occasional celebrity appearance in a political setting, it reinforces the sense of celebrity ubiquity, leading us to overestimate the role of celebrities in politics… Our data reveal a broader perspective, in which celebrities make brief and irregular appearances in the news but do not steer the debate” (381).
While this study proposes various facets of information that make it difficult to see the overarching theme, I think the overall point is that through the lens of celebrity advocacy, we can see how political communication has also had to conform and adapt to a constantly changing media presence. I also think that this points back to Karpf’s idea of advocacy inflation, and it will be interesting to see how current successful communication strategies will diminish in effectiveness over time.
Thrall, A. T., J. Lollio-Fakhreddine, J. Berent, L. Donnelly, W. Herrin, Z. Paquette, R. Wenglinski, and A. Wyatt. “Star Power: Celebrity Advocacy and the Evolution of the Public Sphere.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 13.4 (2008): 362-85. Print.