CBS quickly backtracked after an announcement about “The Activist,” a new reality TV series planned to air, garnered widespread backlash.
The show was supposed to pit teams made up of activists and celebrities against each other. They will compete to see who can raise the most awareness for a cause related to health, education or the environment. The winning teams were to proceed to the G20 summit in Rome to bring world leaders on board.
Critics criticized the show without seeing any footage. Many said that Aadhaar embodied demonstrative activism, devalued grassroots activism and was serious.
On September 15, 2021, less than a week after the five-part series was announced, the network and two of its co-producers admitted that the concept was flawed. He said that he has canceled it and will turn the show into a documentary.
It’s not yet clear what role the celebrity plays – Usher, who founded a nonprofit supporting under-resourced teens in 1999; UNICEF ambassador Priyanka Chopra; and Julianne Hough, who has helped raise awareness of endometriosis — will play in the documentary.
Chopra and Huff immediately felt the need to apologize to their fans and express their concerns. Usher hasn’t spoken.
We are not surprised that a major broadcaster would expect a show involving celebrities and activism to engage audiences and this concept would emerge. We research what happens when celebrities get involved in activism with corporations. Often we find that while celebrities may be well-intentioned in their endeavours, the machinery behind their activism can undermine the causes they want to support.
woo the public
Starbucks, TOMS Shoes and other companies often try to turn compassion into a commodity for suffering strangers, from Congolese farmers to Peruvian children. Celebrities are brought in as spokespersons to broaden the appeal of corporate responsibility efforts and sell more products.
To be sure, we find that some celebrities, including Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie, are more serious about leveraging their influence as they burn through their businesses. However, we often see that not many celebrities invest enough time and energy to gain the credibility and expertise needed to make a difference.
Celebrities have been engaged in this high-profile advocacy for decades. Film stars such as Audrey Hepburn were playing public roles as Good Samaritans in the mid-20th century. Because of their fame, celebrities can entice politicians, wealthy philanthropists and corporations as well as regular people to embrace a cause.
Fans eagerly embrace the news about the celebrity’s achievements as well as their personal lives and charitable inclinations. Since familiar faces can shed light on their pet causes, humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations often tap celebrities to draw attention to advocacy campaigns.
For example, the United Nations lists hundreds of celebrities as ambassadors of peace, goodwill ambassadors and advocates to communicate with the public. The ENOUGH Project promotes NBA star Luol Deng, model Iman and other celebrities as “celebrity upstanders” to raise awareness of the crises in Africa and support efforts to suppress conflicts there.
Similarly, corporations get celebrities to promote product lines related to the cause, such as (RED), a project they have worked with Elton John, Scarlett Johansson and Gisele Bundchen to raise money, initially for HIV/AIDS. To fight AIDS and still to deal with COVID-19 in African countries.
The Perils of Celebrity Activism
Whether the goal is to slow climate change, fight bigotry or improve access to health care, when celebrities engage in activism, the enthusiasm for celebrities can sway activism.
The Darfur Bachao Abhiyan, which at its peak brought together over 190 religious, political and human rights organizations, is a good example.
The campaign eventually collapsed. And yet the people of Darfur are still in trouble.
As research shows that celebrities catch on but fail to capture our attention, humanitarian agencies and nonprofits like UNICEF and Oxfam International compete to secure celebrity ambassadors.
When we interviewed aid workers in the field, we learned that visits by celebrities to crisis-stricken areas and refugee camps can be extremely disruptive to humanitarian work. Without celebrity ambassadors’ control over their stage management and their media appearances, it’s hard to avoid mistakes that run rampant. An example: Actress Elizabeth McGovern combined Dakar and Darfur, the capital of Senegal, when she traveled to Sierra Leone with World Vision as its “ambassador”.
The mistakes that happen and the trouble that happens when famous people show up can defeat the purpose of celebrity engagement. But since these celebrities often come with corporate sponsorships – meaning cash – aid workers and locals stick with them.
Celebrity Activism as an Industry
As the demand for star power grows, the machinery behind celebrity activism has become more corporate and professional, we explain in our new book, “Batman Saves the Congo.”
Today, most major charitable organizations have full-time celebrity contacts to manage dozens of celebrity supporters. There are philanthropic consultants, such as Global Philanthropy Group, that help celebrity clients find reasons to represent.
We’ve tracked down dozens of celebrities who have their own nonprofits to suggest long-term commitments. But these organizations are sometimes set up in unstable campuses that neglect local needs and may benefit the celebrity more than the cause.
Consider Ben Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative. We saw how, in partnership with Starbucks, it claimed to transform the coffee sector in the Congo to advance peace and development. Unfortunately, the initiative had no expertise in coffee production and little information about rural development.
Despite claiming to offer a “cup of hope”, research later showed that the collaboration made little difference to farmers who should have helped.
Furthermore, it was Affleck’s search for meaning in his life, with the help of highly paid mentors, that inspired him to start this organization, not Congolese.
Celebrities and Consumer Activism
Many celebrity-led organizations include corporate partnerships in the form of cause-related marketing lines. Now Happening activists are encouraged to “shop to support” Damon’s water.org by purchasing a cup of Stella Artois Limited Edition.
Or, to keep Christy Turlington Burns’ Every Mother Counts, you can “shop the gifts that make a difference” and buy the Stephanie Freed-Perenchio Orange Rose Necklace.
Activism for celebrities to promote activism risks distorting how causes can be addressed more successfully through collective action, grassroots engagement and direct donations.
A boon for the rich and famous
Without any accountability, we have seen that these efforts generally do little to help the cause or beneficiaries they are supporting.
After studying this pattern for years, we want to know: What does celebrity activism achieve?
It makes an impact, but not in the way you might expect. We’ve seen that getting celebrities to support a cause can bring greater visibility for the celebrity and benefits for corporate partners.
Celebrity activism can soften or rehabilitate a celebrity’s reputation, as in the case of Madonna and Jolie.
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This can lead to higher album sales or even more downloads. This was followed by the Live 8 concert with several artists including British rock band Pink Floyd and pop singer Robbie Williams. Widely televised concerts held at venues around the world in 2005 were aimed at increasing aid to low-income countries.
Even as a canceled TV show, “The Activist,” is destined to spotlight the irresponsible power stars who it is believed to be is far more.