Ewan MacGregor on a Unicef trip

Fame won’t save the world

By Russell Hargrave 12 August 2014

Ewan McGregor is very worried about endangered tigers. Having seen McGregor in Trainspotting and riding his motorbike around, I must say I’m rather worried about them too.

Wait, hang on. Isn’t it George Clooney who hangs out with cute tigers? Or is Clooney all about bringing peace to failed states? And I swear Davina McCall has asked me to give a fiver a month to help abandoned puppies. Or possibly donkeys. Or perhaps she really cares about saving the world from global warming. Can’t remember.

There’s nothing a charity loves more than a celebrity. But judging from evidence revealed in last Friday’s Independent, this should leave the rest of us a bit bewildered. Beyond seeing a famous face looking serious on the telly, staring down the camera with newfound gravitas, new research suggests that we swiftly forget who fronts which good cause. In media-speak, the charity ‘brand’ is quickly divorced from the public face chosen to represent it. There are exceptions—think Lenny Henry and Comic Relief—but the main beneficiaries seem to be the individual celebrity, whose profile as a decent, altruistic sort long outlasts their association with any given cause. Beyond a bump in fundraising (which is welcome, for sure) the lasting difference made to charities’ public standing is minimal.

This has serious consequences for charities. Most campaigning is focused either on shifting people’s attitudes (starting with that vaguest of ambitions, ‘awareness raising’) or influencing the way legislation is made and public funds distributed. And it doesn’t sound like celebrity endorsements offer substantial value to either.

In the first, the details of the cause are lost in the swirl of fame around the chosen celebrity (the researchers quote one respondent’s reflections on Soccer Aid: ‘I think they are raising money for Africa and that, but I watch it because I’m a big Robbie Williams fan and he is the main organiser’). Our awareness might be raised to the empathy and loveliness of the person on a billboard, but nothing sustainable beyond.

And secondly, why would ministers and officials respond to celebrity-endorsed campaigns if they realise that there is no political dividend—after all, it turns out that voters, even if they respond to a campaign, are rather hazy about what it is, let alone what political action they might welcome.

NPC is about to get very interested in campaigning. We’re hosting a free event next month on hashtag activism and grassroots activity, where journalists, campaigners and leading digital experts will compare notes over the future of charity campaigns.

We have two papers coming out on measuring the effectiveness of campaigns and on how campaigns are funded. And by the end of the year we’ll have some spanking new polling on public attitudes towards charities and what they stand for.

All this, and not a famous face in sight.