Using a celebrity to promote a charity is “largely ineffective” according to new research. However, for the celebrity, it can make them more popular with the public.

The journal article was written by 3 UK academics from the University of Manchester, University of Sussex and University of East Anglia. They carried out 2 surveys with more than 1000 people and ran a number of focus groups.

cultural studies“Our survey found that while awareness of major NGOs (aid organisations) brands was high, awareness of celebrity advocates for those brands was low,” read the article, which is published today in the International Journal of Cultural Studies.

“Instead it was plain from the focus groups that most people supported the charities that they supported because of personal connections in their lives and families which made these causes important, not because of the celebrities.

“The evidence suggests, therefore, that the ability of celebrity advocacy to reach people is limited, and dominated in Britain by some extremely prominent telethons and the work of a few stars.”

The paper went on to say that the “the ability of celebrity and advocacy to reach people is limited” and celebrities were “generally ineffective” at encouraging people to care about “distant suffering”.

66% of those questioned could not link any celebrity with a list of 7 well-known charities and aid organisations. But while the star name may not intentionally want to improve their reputation as a result of their charity work, that appeared to be the outcome.

“Regardless of what celebrities may want in terms of publicity – and the interviews suggest that many would seek to maximise the attention given to their cause, and not to them – it is clear that the celebrity can often do better out of this attention than their causes,” wrote the academics.

A further study, published in the same journal, was based on focus group observations with 108 people. Half kept diaries on their thoughts about poorer countries.

“In the diaries, only 6% of all entries were about celebrity humanitarianism – almost all of which were about programmes or advertisements in the build-up to Comic Relief,” said Dr Martin Scott.

“Celebrities were both valued for their seemingly instrumental role in drawing attention to worthy causes but, at the same time, this was often accompanied by cynical statements [written in the diaries] about their motivations for involvement or about the genuineness of their emotional responses.

“There were still a relatively large number of occasions in which seemingly authentic celebrities did appear to generate a distinct sense of proximity and agency vis-a-vis distant suffering.”

However, he added:

“Overall, the results of this research suggest that celebrities are generally ineffective in cultivating a cosmopolitan engagement with distant suffering. In conversations about the mediation of distant others, research participants rarely talked about instances of explicit celebrity humanitarianism.”

The study papers were written by Professor Dan Brockington (University of Manchester) and Professor Spensor Henson (University of Sussex) and Dr Martin Scott (University of East Anglia).