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The uselessness of celebrity endorsements


I don’t have much use for celebrity endorsements of, well, anything.

Oh, sure, it’s conceivable you could be a talented entertainer and also have an informed, thoughtful opinion that adds more light than heat to the debate surrounding a contentious issue, but just because something is possible it doesn’t mean it’s likely. And let’s face it, the mere fact you’re pretty good at pretending to be somebody else in front of a camera does not give you any special insight the rest of us lack.

I also resent lectures from affluent millionaires who use private jets like we use cars and have just expended vast amounts of energy making Pocahontas In Outer Space with blue people telling the rest of us we should be cutting back on vacation trips to Moose Jaw to reduce our environmental footprint.

It is therefore gratifying to hear scientific evidence that celebrity endorsements do not, by and large, persuade people…at least not when it comes to whom to vote for.

Two studies carried out at North Carolina State University revealed that young voters—the ones one might expect would be most susceptible to the rush of hot air from Hollywood—are not swayed by celebrity endorsements of political candidates.

Results of the studies were outlined in a paper entitled “Seeing Stars: Are young voters influenced by celebrity endorsements of candidates?”, co-authored by Michael Cobb, an associate professor of political science, and undergraduate Kaye Usry and presented April 22 at the 68th Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago.

“The positive effects of a celebrity endorsement are minimal for politicians,” says Cobb. “I began to observe this kind of sentiment among my own students—particularly my conservative students—who were continually commenting about how much they disliked celebrities wading into politics, and I knew there was some research to be done.”

In the studies, he used theoretical voting scenarios and invented headlines about Hollywood partisanship to evaluate whether more than 800 college students, in two separate studies, would let endorsement from celebrities—including George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Madonna—influence their voting behavior.

They not only found that celebrity endorsements do not help candidates, they can actually hurt them, with some young people less likely to vote for a candidate after a celebrity endorsement than before.

This echoes the finding of a Pew Research Centre survey conducted during the 2008 presidential campaign that found that endorsements by Jay Leno, Bill Gates, Kanye West, Angelina Jolie, Jon Stewart, Donald Trump, among others, mad no difference in the voting plans of fully three-quarters of the voting public.

And while endorsing a political candidate may make little difference in the number of people who vote for that candidate, it holds risks for the celebrity. In the study, students were asked to rate both the credibility and trustworthiness of the stars mentioned. Students who identified themselves as Democrats had a lower opinion of George Clooney when told he had endorsed a Republican; students who identified themselves as Republicans had the same reaction when told Clooney had endorsed a Democrat.

In the real world, data suggest Oprah Winfrey became less popular after endorsing Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

Celebrity endorsements, then, are of little use to candidates and hold dangers for the celebrities, who risk alienating large sections of their public whichever party they publicly support.

Cobb is willing to grant one way in which a celebrity endorsement can help a candidate: a celebrity putting in an appearance at a rally can boost attendance. As he says, “Are you more likely to attend a political event if the candidate is slated to appear by him- or herself, or if the candidate is going to appear with Madonna?”

In the U.S. in particular, where candidates have to win over large numbers of the voters in their own party in primaries before being presented to the general electorate as a candidate, a celebrity endorsement can also help candidates stand out in a crowded field.

But once they’re actually up for election, the celebrities would be doing the candidates and themselves a favor by fading into the woodwork.

Alas, that seems about as likely as a Hollywood movie that portrays former President George W. Bush in a favorable light.

Could happen, I suppose, but on the day such a film is released, I plan to keep my head low.

Those flying pigs pack a mean wallop.

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  1. OK. Cool. So one small study indicates that celebrity endorsements don’t help. Kind of counter-intuitive, that the sheep don’t follow their chosen shepherd, but who knew?

    (“data suggests that…” – that would be pop-sci-speak for “we don’t know, but we can pretend that…”, right?)

    “that seems about as likely as a Hollywood movie that portrays former President George W. Bush in a favorable light.”

    Which light would that be? The light coming from an Iraq in flames? The light from burning trashcans near Wall Street after he collapsed the economy? Or the one from the burning oil in the Gulf of Mexico (where deregulation combined with Cheney’s corporate-led “Energy Task Force,” ending with a continuing flow of oil from the water onto the shore of the Gulf states?)

    I’m just curious.

      • on June 5, 2010 at 11:05 pm
      • Reply

      Thank you for your comment.

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