Celebrity charity endorsements benefit the star more than the charity, research finds

In the International Journal of Cultural Studies, two professors say most people support charities because of a personal or family connection rather than celebrity promotion

Sam and Billie Faiers from the TV reality show The Only Way is Essex, supporting Haven House Children’s Hospice
Sam and Billie Faiers from the TV reality show The Only Way is Essex, supporting Haven House Children’s Hospice

Celebrity endorsements of charities can give greater benefit to the star than the charity, according to a report from two academics.

Professor Dan Brockington of the University of Manchester and Professor Spencer Henson of the University of Sussex say that the public are more likely to support charities because of personal or family connections than celebrity-led promotion.

In Signifying the Public: Celebrity Advocacy and Post-democratic Politics, published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, they cite two surveys of 1,100 and 2,000 members of the public, which found that 66 per cent of people were unable to name a celebrity linked with any one of seven high-profile causes.

They also carried out focus groups on public attitudes. In their report, Brockington and Henson say: "It was plain from the focus groups that most people supported the charities that they supported because of personal connections in their lives and families, which made these causes important, not because of the celebrities."

They go on to say that the ability of celebrity advocacy to reach people is limited and is dominated "by some extremely prominent telethons and the work of a few stars". It does not suggest who these stars are.

The report also notes that there is a strong belief that celebrity advocacy has a place, although most people think that it is other people who are swayed by celebrity and that their own lack of interest is unusual.

The report says that celebrities they spoke with can end up getting more out of the relationship than they expected. "Regardless of what celebrities may want in terms of publicity – and the interviews suggest that many would seek to maximise the attention given to their cause, and not to them – it is clear that the celebrity can often do better out of this attention than their causes," it says.
The paper says that the UK’s view of celebrity-charity relationships might be substantially different to the US, Japan or elsewhere in Europe.

A separate article in the same journal, written by Professor Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia and called The Role of Celebrities in Mediating Distant Suffering, reported on 50 volunteers who kept diaries on their thoughts about poorer countries. Only 6 per cent of all entries were about celebrity humanitarianism, and almost all of these in the build-up to Comic Relief, Scott says.

He says that although celebrities are often able "to generate a distinct sense of proximity and agency vis-a-vis distant suffering", they generally cultivated engagement. "In conversations about the mediation of distant others, research participants rarely talked about instances of explicit celebrity humanitarianism," he says.

Brockington has been researching celebrity endorsement of charities for several years, but charities were generally sceptical about findings he published in 2011, which carried a similar message to this new report.

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