OP-ED: The Paradox of Celebrity Endorsements

By Olivia Becker, Ethical Culture Fieldston School

Taylor Swift for Phil Bredesen, Common for Stacey Abrams, or Tracee Ellis Ross for Andrew Gillum.

Celebrities were ubiquitous on the campaign trail this midterm season, but this is by no means a new trend. Historians have traced celebrities’ active role in campaigns back to the 1920 election, in which film star Lillian Russell endorsed Warren G. Harding. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was endorsed by Rat Pack members Sammy Davis and Dean Martin, and in more recent times, Barack Obama garnered the very public support of Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Will.i.am, and Brad Pitt, to name a few. Their support helped catapult the young junior senator from Illinois to the center spotlight of America’s political stage.

The presence of these celebrities is apparent and their potential to attract attention and support is obvious, but what is the true influence of high-profile endorsements?

Although not the same as advertising and branding, many parallels can be drawn to company advertisements featuring celebrities.

Marketers unreluctantly spend millions on celebrity endorsers because they have the ability to leverage “secondary brand associations” — that is, people transfer their sentiments toward a celebrity to the brand. Think Jennifer Aniston and Smart Water or Michael Jordan and Nike. Celebrities grab and hold consumer attention, improve ad recall, and, in most cases, boost the public image of a brand. The same can be said in politics.

In a complex, superficial, soundbyte-focused world where people often do not read beyond the headlines, eye-catching pictures and titles are vital in triggering socio-psychological associations. Celebrity endorsers serve as everything from facilitators of eye-traffic to arbiters of public opinion. As clearly stated by Bowling Green State University Professor of Political Science David J. Jackson, “It seems likely therefore that Swift’s endorsements could at least be marginally helpful among those who like her and find her credible.”

However, it is vital to understand that “celebrity affiliation” cuts both ways and can backfire — look at the Hillary Clinton campaign. Nothing says “with the people” like a $10,000-per-plate Malibu dinner hosted by Steven Spielberg or an intimate “get to know you” dinner for $25,000 per head at Anna Wintour’s New York City residence with a few of her closest friends. These celebrities’ brands may have contributed to framing Clinton in the wrong way, reinforcing perceptions of her as hoity-toity, sanctimonious, and disconnected. Moreover, in cases where the endorsing celebrity is not well respected and has a low approval rating (i.e. Kim Kardashian, whom 78.4 percent of the respondents in research conducted by The Journal of Political Marketing viewed somewhat or very unfavorably), that celebrity could attach an unwanted stigma to the campaign.

Overall, in a slew of low-margin races during the recent elections, as is true in all elections, name recognition was pertinent.

An estimated 31 percent of eligible people ages 18 to 29 voted in the 2018 midterms, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).  While this shows progress from years prior, and it is imperative that Generation Z is actively engaged in democracy, we do not want politics to be defined by the transitive property — I like Taylor Swift and Taylor Swift likes Phil Bredesen, ergo I like Phil Bredesen and should vote for him. People should think critically and delve into policy implications. If Taylor Swift’s engagement plants a seed of curiosity about politics, then great. The New York Times reported on October 9th, 2018, that after Swift told her Instagram followers to register to vote, 166,000 people submitted new registration requests on Vote.org. Celebrities can jumpstart a lifetime of political engagement. However, races for the most coveted offices in our country could become glorified popularity contests fueled by those with support from high-profile individuals. It is, in and of itself, a paradox.

We do not want politics to turn into a reality television show filled with likeable connectors, where who you know seems more important than what you believe. Networks of a politician, while vital, should pale in comparison to depth of the politician’s character and, above all, policies. Beto O’Rourke’s family is eating steak tonight as shown on his perfectly curated Snapchat, and Beyoncé is a huge fan. Awesome! But what are his views on and plans for healthcare and education? Now, that’s a great question.