The curse of celebrities 'raising awareness'

Another month and another slap in the face for celebrity activism

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Are we blinded by celebrity?
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Jonathan Bracey Gibbon
On 15 October 2012 15:45

Another month and another slap in the face for celebrity activism, and I’m not talking about Madonna's call to vote for the “Black Muslim in the White House”.

This time it has reached something of a nadir; this time it wasn't just some actor who tied his colours to the mast of a passing cause. This was years of celebrity extracurricular activity, that, far from being rooted in some misplaced ideology, was used quite brilliantly, as it turned out, to cover a life of deep venality.

It is now a given that in his heyday, Sir Jimmy Savile's celebrity status was such that he could get away with his crimes. In later life the drip drip rumours of his behaviour, together with his accelerating creepiness, meant that Savile became something of a stately old pederast out of central casting, his age preventing the likes of the hopelessly craven BBC from investigating what the ghastly ogre had been up to.

If there is any benefit to come from Savile it is that society will require celebrities to be transparent in their extracurricular activities.

It has been noted that had the likes of Steve Coogan, Charlotte Church, Hugh Grant et al. had their way, a future Savile could remain free from investigation, but the fact is almost all celebrities are required or requested to back one cause or another in the course of their lives. They should get used to saying no, as the track record of celebrities getting it right and making a difference is pretty feeble.

Only last month, rapper Wyclef Jean's Haitian aid organization, Yele, went bust leaving a trail of debt and dispute with millions of dollars, raised from willing donors on the back of Jean's celebrity, having allegedly been frittered away on hangers-on and celebrity excesses ($30,000 on a private jet to transport Lindsay Lohan to a fundraiser…) all in the name of that unimpeachable pastime: raising awareness.

Jean now faces a criminal investigation, but more concerning is the investigation has thus far only covered the years before the 2010 earthquake, which gave the charity real traction as a fundraiser, and Jean has refused a plea deal which would require a full audit of its post-earthquake expenditure.

Of course, in the world of celebrity activism/charity work, there is a perception of incompetence and abuse of trust which has led to an increasingly healthy disregard of the celebrity activist – a collective weariness at being patronised by people who often, by their profession, are required to exist at the extremes of the emotional scale, while plebs like us see the world in a more nuanced, realistic dimension.

Cause marketing has been a powerful through-the-line tool since the early 1970s when Marriott got in bed with infant health charity March of Dimes. It was a huge success for Marriott in promoting its new family entertainment centres and for March of Dimes in awareness and fund raising.

Today, few cause marketing campaigns are free from celebrity endorsement of one sort or another, but as celebrities have increased in status and importance to campaigns, they have foundered.

Billionaire tax-evading rock star Bono and his hapless Red campaign – which allied brands and products to humanitarian donation – seemed to be designed to get up people's noses from the start and soon gained unwelcome attention for the spectacular fees paid out to third party agents and a lack of transparency as to the percentage of money actually going to humanitarian causes.

In 2007 it was disclosed by Advertising Age that while brands such as Apple, Gap, and Amex (which has now pretty much withdrawn from the campaign) had invested over $100m in the scheme, only $18m had been raised for the fund, and while Red is intended to be a model of cause marketing, in effect it stands accused of using disease as a vehicle for cause branding.

That said, this week Bono has been doing the rounds, schmoozing with Bill Gates, French premier Francois Hollande, and UK deputy PM Nick Clegg among others. Red now claims to have raised over $150m, but the feeling is that bridging the gap between naked cause marketing and dying Africans is pretty distasteful and arguably damaging to both sides.

While drawing a distinction between Savile's activities and the failings of Jean and Red, the need for transparency in what powerful celebrities get up to when they're not active in their day jobs is what's needed here. That, and a healthy cynicism every time we hear the words, “raising awareness”.

Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon is a freelance journalist who over the past 15 years has written for The Times, the Financial Times, The Sunday Times and Sunday Express

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