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30/05/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Celebrity and Political Sponsorship to the Test

The negative aspects of allowing celebrities and public personas to influence your electoral decisions, using the United States as a model.


Today, 6th November 2018, the United States of America will celebrate their mid-term elections. They happen every four years in November, coinciding with the end of the first half of a president’s term in office. This time the situation is even more polarised than usual in the US two-party system. Both Democrats and Republicans face the race with clashing agendas and with different stances on the issues dividing their society. But, as ever in election times, there’s another, less obvious clash taking place.

If you’re on social media and just so happen to follow any US celebrity or public figure, there’s a good chance you might have encountered posts and messages encouraging their followers to register and vote, possibly even complemented by a comment on how they have the key to political and social change in the era of Donald Trump. Surely, this phenomenon is not new. Many people might still remember former US President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008, with Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and the whole lot. While their performances were surely amusing, they had to do more with politics than with music. Likewise, in this elections, Mr. Obama, who has a positive and respected public image and is by now short of a national icon for many, has made several public appearances to favour the campaign aspirations of Democrats, endorsing certain candidates in their races. In the Republican camp, rapper Kanye West, comedian Roseanne Barr or former boxer Mike Tyson have supported Mr. Trump’s administration. While following the advice of celebrities is free for anyone to do, there are some aspects of their influence to consider.

A quick and easy sell…
In the first place, celebrity sponsorship is quick and easy for media outlets. It facilitates their news-making by providing them with a zero-cost, ready-made product they can run immediately with no additional research as any other story would require. In a fast-paced context with multiple actors involved, as elections are, the media can be overwhelmed by information and these pieces of soft news can help cover the action in little time.

…limiting critical thought
Still, voting for someone because someone else told you to is not great news for a healthy democracy. High-profile sponsorship certainly promotes flat, linear thinking and incites people to go by feeling instead of reflecting. The admiration and identification that happens between an idolising fan and a celebrity can blur the fan’s perception and hinder their critical thinking.

An “authoritative” figure
Even when you and I might not follow the same public figures, let alone pay the same attention to the same people, sponsors are normally figures of some authority. Hence, the information is secure for journalists to publish and for audiences to consume. However, there is a catch. The authority of sponsors might come from an area with little to do with public policy. Therefore, in many cases, there is no such thing as a truly authoritative figure simply because fame or notoriety do not equal expertise or knowledge. In other words, high-profile sponsors can very easily be detached from what could be considered regular working or living conditions or from the specifics of policy-making, rendering their opinions not more valuable than yours or mine.

A matter of PR
Electoral campaigns tend to be noisy and, amid the cacophony, trends usually form around candidates. What every candidate is perceived to represent is essential when gathering sponsors. Think for example, to remain in the US, of Obama’s “Yes We Can/Change/Hope” campaign in 2008. Being identified with change and progress might not necessarily push a celebrity’s career too much, but siding with someone opposed to them can surely break it, remember the backlash against West and, especially, Barr. This is not to say all support is calculated, but those who are particularly vocal about their allegiance may be in search of public opinion gains.

What about accountability?
There are many more arguments for and against political and celebrity sponsorship, but the most crucial aspect at stake in this discussion is the issue of accountability. Unlike any other kind of advertisement, political sponsorship doesn’t need to be paired with any sort of reasoning supporting the claim and, unlike fair advertisement, it is not subject to the principles of accountability or balance. You might choose to follow the advice or not, but there is nothing you can do about it other than think for yourself.

Cover: Elliott Stallion on Unsplash / final editor: Ivo Martens

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