E.g., 06/18/2024
E.g., 06/18/2024
Are Celebrity Spokespeople Always Helpful for Refugee Causes?

Are Celebrity Spokespeople Always Helpful for Refugee Causes?

A female celebrity being photographed at an event.

A female celebrity being photographed at an event. (Photo: Caiaimage/Tom Merton/iStock.com)

Movie star. Music legend. Fashion icon. Humanitarian?

Celebrities can be many things. For decades, some have chosen to lend their image, time, and skills to support aid groups, advocacy campaigns, and other efforts focused on refugees, internally displaced people, or other migration-related causes. These efforts can take multiple forms, such as performances at benefit concerts, appearances in fundraising campaigns and public service announcements, appeals to governments, or their own donations.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is affiliated with more than 40 individual goodwill ambassadors, whom it says “are some of the most recognizable public faces of UNHCR” and “help to bring our organization to every corner of the world through their influence, dedication, and hard work.” Among them are Australian actor Cate Blanchett, bestselling British author Neil Gaiman, and Canadian soccer star Alphonso Davies, himself a resettled refugee.

In all, well more than 300 celebrities have engaged in some sort of refugee-focused aid work, according to the tracking website Look to the Stars, assisting groups such as the Enough Project, the International Rescue Committee, the Refugee Council, and Refugees International. Many more have worked with other types of humanitarian organizations, including those focused on disaster relief, human rights, and poverty, which often are linked to involuntary migration.

In affiliating with charitable causes, stars lend not just their face, voice, and time to a particular effort, but also, in a less tangible way, their brand. In exchange, celebrities may earn the satisfaction of helping a noble cause, and the general public may come away with a more favorable impression of them as not just skilled performers but also serious humanitarian advocates.

But does star power help the refugee cause?

This article explores the history of celebrity involvement in migration issues, evaluating the potential upsides and drawbacks. While engagement with celebrities can have certain benefits, such as drawing attention to a cause or group, particularly more unknown ones, it is important that organizations work with stars most suited to their work. There are also liabilities, including the risk that complex humanitarian challenges are oversimplified or that the partnership will draw attention to the celebrity rather than beneficiary organizations or individuals on the ground. Likewise, if the celebrity garners negative attention in their personal or professional life, that might lead to corresponding critiques of the organization. The issues being addressed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in this space are important and urgent, and it is essential to evaluate whether the time and effort attached to creating, sustaining, and promoting this sort of advocacy is effective and efficient.

Celebrity Engagement in Politics

Celebrities’ involvement with political issues is not a new phenomenon. In 1920, Al Jolson, the popular performer who would later star in the first talking film, The Jazz Singer, stood beside Warren G. Harding at a campaign event as Harding sought to become the next U.S. president. With hat in hand and a jaunty campaign ribbon pinned to his jacket, Jolson provided one of the earliest celebrity political endorsements. Celebrity dabbling in politics has grown increasingly popular in the years since, from Beyoncé singing at President Barack Obama’s inauguration to stars successfully running for office themselves, such as Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan becoming governor of California and later U.S. president; musclemen Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura becoming the governors of California and Minnesota, respectively; and businessman and TV reality star Donald Trump taking up residence at the White House. Outside the United States, the 2016 Brexit vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union saw a trove of celebrities line up in both camps, while Pakistani cricketer-turned-Prime Minister Imran Khan and comedians Jimmy Morales, the former president of Guatemala, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are among the long list of individuals who entered politics after becoming household names as athletes or performers.

Instead of endorsing individual politicians or running for office themselves, many celebrities are likely to publicly support a humanitarian cause or campaign. This can take a range of forms, including partnering with international organizations (such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s work with Save the Children and Angelina Jolie’s long association with UNHCR), advertising major fundraisers (such as Judi Dench’s appearances for the Red Nose Day campaign), addressing legislatures (such as George Clooney’s 2012 testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the humanitarian situation in Sudan), or promoting a charity program (such as Bono’s co-founding of the anti-AIDS effort Project Red). All represent an effort to urge action and raise money and visibility for a cause. While in many instances celebrities are making deeply political requests focused on relief efforts, humanitarian services, or peace promotion, their efforts are largely nonpartisan and are typically tied to established organizations that have sought out their star power to raise awareness.

Types of Celebrity Engagement

Some stars take unique actions to support migrants. Cumberbatch, for instance, hosted at his UK home a Ukrainian family fleeing the war. Jolie cofounded Kids in Need of Defense, a U.S. organization advocating for the rights of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children. And Clooney appeared before the UN Security Council to appeal for international action in Darfur, later earning a designation as UN Messenger of Peace from the UN secretary general.

Yet most celebrity efforts typically take one of the following forms: donations, traditional advocacy, television and social media campaigns, and charity concerts.

Numerous celebrities advertise their charitable giving as a way to signal their support for a particular cause and encourage others to follow suit. Reports of stars’ donations often spike in the wake of global crises such as the 2022 start of the war in Ukraine, which prompted an outpouring of celebrity support for displaced Ukrainians. Actors Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds were among those who made a major contribution, pledging $1 million in matching donations to UNHCR.

Traditional advocacy has been the most political and occasionally partisan approach. There has been an uptick in this kind of action in the United Kingdom recently, amid government efforts to create more restrictive humanitarian migration laws. In 2020, members of the band Coldplay and actors Olivia Colman and Emma Thompson were among the more than 70 British performers who signed a Refugee Council-organized open letter to the prime minister demanding changes to refugee family reunification laws. The next year, dozens of celebrities (including some who signed the 2020 letter) wrote a similar letter to the government in protest of the Nationality and Borders Act, which created a new, more limited status for certain asylum seekers arriving via small boats.

Perhaps the most visible way for celebrities to engage with these issues is to participate in TV or social media campaigns. Jolie, for instance, received extensive media coverage for her visits to refugee camps and other locations in countries such as Iraq and Myanmar (also known as Burma) as a former special envoy for UNHCR. Some efforts to use celebrities are more subtle. In 2016, for example, Oxfam and Vanity Fair produced videos of the actors John Cho, Gael Garcia Bernal, Margot Robbie, and others reciting the words of Syrian refugees “in hopes you might hear” them. These types of campaigns crop up across social media and seek to grab the viewer’s attention by using a well-known face to guide the audience through a complicated topic. These can be formal, produced efforts such as those discussed above. Or they can be quite casual, filmed on cellphones with poor lighting and low production values. The International Rescue Committee, for example, compiled seemingly self-taped videos of celebrities urging viewers to support the group during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Then there are charity concerts such as the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh (following the country’s war of independence), Live Aid in 1985 (amid the famine in Ethiopia), Together at Home (benefiting a World Health Organization COVID-19 fund in 2020), and the 2022 Concert for Ukraine, which have become a popular way to raise funds and draw attention to international crises. Multiple artists come together to perform, sometimes recording a single song together, and donate the proceeds to a relief fund. Part telethon, part rock concert, these events are so common that they have been parodied on comedy shows and movies.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Celebrity Engagement

The success of celebrity campaigns is difficult to measure. The authors’ research defined success based on the intended effect for the organization affiliated with the star. In studying the effect of Cumberbatch’s work with Save the Children, for example, the metric used was whether the appeal caused individuals to intend to donate to the organization. In this instance, the star did not increase the likelihood of giving—those who watched the celebrity appeal and those who did not were similarly likely to express an intention to donate. However, one could also argue the goal was to protect and provide services to Syrian refugees. If the campaign did not lead to concrete improvements in these refugees’ lives, even if it met its financial targets, was the celebrity activism effective? This is a much bigger question, and one that is difficult to answer, but useful to consider, as researchers and NGO officials evaluate the efficacy of these campaigns. But there are clear ways that stars’ involvement can help campaigns or complicate them.

Potential Benefits

As noted above, celebrities can generate attention for a cause. But this depends on who the star is, the audience they command, and the match between the celebrity and the issue. For example, an actor with a history in theater and dramatic roles, such as Cumberbatch, might add an air of legitimacy to an effort to support refugees, in a way that someone known primarily for slapstick comedy would not. Likewise, for a global organization such as Save the Children, it makes more sense to use a celebrity with an international audience than one with a country-specific appeal. In other words, there can be a benefit to a celebrity’s involvement, but not that of any star; success is conditional on a thoughtful decision about who is recruited to pitch which message.

There is some evidence that celebrities can serve as a hook in order to generate initial interest in an ad, campaign, or organization. In other words, if someone sees that a high-profile celebrity is featured in a video, they might be more likely to watch than if it was produced sans celebrity. This can be particularly effective with younger audiences who may place a greater value on celebrity than their elders.

There are a variety of reasons why celebrities can generate interest in an issue. They can provide legitimacy to an organization that is unknown or unfamiliar to an audience, or add relevance to an issue about which individuals may not have known or cared. They can make an issue memorable through shock or surprise. Likewise, stars can confer a sense of glamor, making it seem that by joining the advocacy cause supporters are part of an elite community. And they can act as a bridge between concerned citizens and those in power. When Leonardo DiCaprio engages in environmental activism, for instance, he acts as a sort of representative of the public, holding governments accountable if they spurn international climate agreements.

Finally, when considering a celebrity’s ability to engage people on an issue, it is worth noting the public’s attachment to celebrities can vary. In some cases, loyal individuals express a parasocial relationship with their favorite celebrities, such as so-called Swifties who follow Taylor Swift’s every move, or the BeyHive which eagerly devours new utterances from Beyoncé. These relationships, while not reciprocated, can feel very real to a fan. Celebrities with these kinds of fanbases might find an easier time persuading their followers to participate in their advocacy than those with a weaker attachment to fans.

Potential Drawbacks

It is not clear that a celebrity endorsement has a dramatic impact on supporters’ likelihood to donate to a particular group. In an experiment run by the authors in 2018, some participants were shown a Save the Children video featuring Cumberbatch and others were given an edited video in which Cumberbatch’s appeal had been removed. Ultimately, participants said both videos were persuasive and fostered an intention to donate to Save the Children. The inclusion of Cumberbatch did not, in and of itself, seem to boost support for the campaign. However, those who watched the Cumberbatch video had a more positive attitude toward the actor himself. One conclusion was that, in this instance, the involvement of the celebrity was largely superfluous to the campaign’s message but might lead to benefits for the individual star. One caveat was that participants might not have watched the video had they not been involved in the study; it is likely that celebrity involvement could have hooked some of them who otherwise might not pay attention.

Additionally, while celebrities might help generate initial attention to a cause, their participation can reduce complex issues down to simple appeals. It could be argued that this is not a zero-sum game, and that appeals for donations may complement rather than replace more nuanced campaigns to address these issues. However, if celebrities garner more attention than other efforts, there may be a tradeoff.

Inordinate focus on the star can also distract from the contributions of leaders at local, national, and international levels who are at the forefront of dealing with refugee issues, as well as the refugees themselves. This is about more than just properly assigning credit. Identifying who and what is responsible for policy outcomes is essential in allocating resources and planning for the future. Even well-intentioned efforts by outside actors can be damaging when they undermine existing work, and can ultimately cause backsliding.

On a conceptual level, celebrities can inadvertently lend legitimacy to a problematic dynamic, perhaps by tacitly endorsing a Western-centered or overly militarized response to a crisis in the Global South. Analysis of Ben Affleck’s humanitarian and social enterprise work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, has suggested celebrity advocacy may further the neoliberal status quo. Celebrities’ involvement can even perpetuate racist and problematic misperceptions of nations and people. Radi-Aid, a parody effort funded in part by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), routinely skewered NGOs that used celebrities in this way throughout the 2010s. In 2017, for instance, it awarded a “Rusty Radiator” award to an Ed Sheeran video for Comic Relief. In the video, the singer toured a Liberian slum, in what Radi-Aid described as “literally poverty tourism” that perpetuated negative stereotypes about poor Africans. The scholars Jemima Repo and Riina Yrjölä have looked at advocacy across Africa by Bono, Bob Geldof, and Jolie and concluded that it tells African countries to adopt “a childlike position in the Western imaginary.” In other words, these kinds of representations can foster the idea that celebrities (who are often White) are saviors, which denies the work of refugees, other migrants, and their communities (who often are not White).

Should Organizations Use Celebrities?

NGOs and others considering using celebrities in their humanitarian efforts have several questions they should ask themselves. First, does the particular celebrity appeal to the campaign’s intended audience? Does the proposed star campaign oversimplify the issue, or does it provide the opportunity for multifaceted solutions? While fundraising is important, does the celebrity’s engagement highlight the complexity of the issue and the correspondingly complex solutions needed? Does the campaign center the star, highlighting their experience and feelings, or those of the people at the heart of the campaign? Does celebrity involvement serve to draw focus and attention away from others working on the issue? Does the campaign cast either the celebrity or the viewers as heroes, thus undermining the autonomy of the affected people? Or does it use the star to highlight the efforts of local communities, using a partnership narrative? 

These are just a handful of the questions that, based on the existing scholarship, are useful to consider for those developing or analyzing an advocacy campaign featuring a celebrity. The situation is complex, and NGOs that benefit from celebrity spokespeople might face challenges or backlash if they do so uncritically.

In his Save the Children appeal, Cumberbatch read the Warsan Shire poem “Home,” which is a tragic representation of the urgency facing refugees and other migrants who have no choice but to flee: “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well,” it begins. The poem depicts a journey from a hostile place to one that is only marginally less hostile. Individual migrants and their stories are at the center of organizations’ work and should be centered in their narratives. Celebrities involved in refugee-focused campaigns seem to have a sincere interest in the cause, and the organizations working with them seem genuinely dedicated to improving the lives of refugees and other migrants. Careful thought before embarking on such alliances can help make sure their efforts are constructive, transformative, and instructive for future campaigns.


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