In two surveys with 3,100 people conducted by academics at the Universities of Manchester and Sussex, 75 per cent claimed not to have responded “in any way” to celebrity advocacy. Almost two-thirds (66 per cent) could not name a single celebrity linked with high-profile charities such as Action Aid, Amnesty International or Oxfam, while just 7 per cent could name more than two.
In a series of focus groups carried out as part of the study, it was found that while almost all respondents knew about celebrity advocacy, this was centred on a small number of specific events with particularly famous stars. These included Comic Relief, Sports Relief and Children In Need and celebrities such as George Clooney, Bono and Joanna Lumley.
The study suggests that this means the ability of celebrity advocates to reach people is limited to some “extremely prominent telethons and the work of a few stars”. It also claims celebrity advocacy gets more attention for the celebrity than the cause they are advocating.
“It was plain from the focus groups that most people supported the charities they supported because of personal connections in their lives and families which made these causes important, not because of the celebrities. There were cases where people had got involved in charities and causes because of celebrity endorsements – but they were rare,” says the study.
Nevertheless, charities continue to use celebrity endorsement as a way of raising the profile of their cause among both the public and the government. Unicef is the biggest supporter of celebrity advocacy, attracting 32 celebrity supporters, ahead of Christian Aid and Oxfam which both have 17.
This despite the fact that the research found that just 7 per cent of people are “pro-fame”, described as strongly in favour of charitable associations with the famous. In contrast half were “markedly opposed to” or “did not like” the association.
The report authors claim charities presume celebrity is popular because it is all over the media when in fact most people pay it little attention. The research found that only 22 per cent of people spend more than five minutes reading about celebrity and 17 per cent spend five minutes talking about it.
The public also assumes celebrity is a good way of promoting causes, with 87 per cent thinking that while they do not pay it much attention, other people do.
“There is a false, but popular, belief that celebrity is powerful,” says the study.
The authors suggest that where charities have celebrity endorsement they should use it increase engagement among current supporters, rather than to attract new ones. It also has a role to play in lobbying government and policy making, according to the report.
“Those who are tolerant or interested in celebrity advocacy may be sympathetic to the causes for which the celebrities are advocating already. Celebrity advocacy may best be directed at existing supporters rather than new ones,” says the report.