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Doubt cast on charities’ star turns

22 August 2014


Ambassador for Oxfam: the actress Keira Knightley talks to a mother and child in a refugee camp in South Sudan

Ambassador for Oxfam: the actress Keira Knightley talks to a mother and child in a refugee camp in South Sudan

SIGNING up a star brings little benefit to charities, which over-estimate the appeal of celebrity, a new survey suggests.

The research, published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, argues that most people support charities because of personal connections, not because of celebrity endorsement. The authors, Dan Brockington and Spence Henson, conclude that, "to the extent that celebrity advocacy does get people's attention, it is the celebrity that gets it more than the cause".

Their poll of 1207 people found that, while 95 per cent were aware of the seven well-known development charities listed, two-thirds of them had no awareness of the famous people associated with these charities. Focus groups suggested that "celebrities were not necessarily good at directing attention to the substance of their charities' causes - but rather, if inadvertently, towards themselves."

The authors go on to argue that celebrity advocacy does work, in the sense that "political and corporate elites want to meet celebrities. They often provide a good way into elite-dominated policy-making circles, which are so dominant in development." It is, thus, symptomatic of a "post-democratic form of politics" in which citizens are alienated from power.

On Monday, Oxfam and ActionAid, who were among the seven charities listed in the survey, defended the use of celebrities. A spokesman for Oxfam said that they "enable us to bring issues like poverty and inequality to large, new, and diverse audiences. . . . Many of our ambassadors have supported Oxfam for years, and their commitment has made a huge difference to the lives of many thousands of people, by generating public awareness, campaigning, and financial support."

A spokeswoman for ActionAid said that taking the actress Samantha Womack to visit the charity's work in Myanmar, in 2012, was "an integral part of a fund-raising drive that signed up over 2000 new child sponsors for children desperately in need".

The head of media at Christian Aid, Andrew Hogg, said that the charity had "shifted away from seeking celebrity endorsements" two years ago, "and instead focused more on our grass-roots church supporters, who are our hands and feet in spreading the word of Christian Aid in the UK.

"Like our work around the world alleviating poverty, we don't rely on 'aid workers' from the West parachuting in and fixing problems. We work in partnership with local civil-society organisations that are already embedded in communities.

"Likewise, our advocacy and fund-raising in the UK relies not on celebrities, but on thousands of committed individuals who believe in what we're doing and want to be a part of that."

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