Expert view: Celebs should be used with care

Bob Geldof recently slammed Al Gore's Live Earth event as "just an enormous pop concert without any real goal".

Not that it's stopped lots of image-conscious musicians such as Madonna and socially aware bands such as Coldplay signing up. It seems every pop star needs a cause and, of course, the column inches to go with it.

Since the 60s, pop stars have used songs to challenge social injustice - pop is not without politics. But it was Geldof who realised pop's campaigning potential.

Live Aid remains one of the most successful fundraising events in history, raising more than £150m. It took its message to more than 1.5 billion viewers and challenged governments to change the world.

Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay, has been a passionate voice on social issues and a big supporter of Oxfam's Make Trade Fair campaign. Having the right star on your side can be an effective marketing weapon, especially if you are trying to win over a younger audience.

But not all celebrity partnerships are successful. Bono's Red campaign to help fights Aids in Africa has raised only $18m against a $100m expenditure, despite signing up big brands such as American Express, Motorola, Apple and Gap.

To give Bono credit, Red was well planned and thought through, unlike the reactions to crises some pop stars come up with. After the Asian tsunami in 2004, Cliff Richard and Boy George announced they were recording a fundraising song called Grief Never Grows Old and expected to raise £2m, but ended up raising more eyebrows.

Similarly, when Michael Jackson announced he wanted to record a charity track to help target child mortality in Africa, the press tore into him. Apart from the fact that he seemed to know very little about his cause, it was suggested that he'd do better donating his cash and saving the rest of us from three and half minutes of self-righteousness.

Celebrities can be effective tools when well used. But left to their own devices they can end up trivialising causes or, worse, reducing them to fashion moments.

Make Poverty History, for example, attracted criticism from commentators who claimed many of the celebrities who signed up saw the wristbands more as fashion accessories than social statements.

I'm all for pop stars turning up the heat on governments and raising money, but I do feel it's the third sector that needs to take the lead - especially if we want the public to buy into long-term solutions. Maybe that way we can also save the world from another bad ballad sung by choirs of aged rockers.

- Chris Arnold is executive creative director of the ethical marketing agency Feel

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