A survey of public responses to celebrity advocacy

In collaboration with the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UK POM) run by the IDS, I have conducted a short survey (designed with Spencer Henson and Johanna Lindstrom) of public responses to celebrity advocacy. Just over 2,000 people took part in the survey.

The results provide one of the first large-scale surveys of how people respond to celebrity’s presence in the media, and in particular their work for charities (and especially development charities). A preliminary summary of the results has been written up by the IDS and is available here. For a link to the summary of the UK POM page where a summary of the results can also be found please click here.

There are two particularly important results from this survey which I want to highlight from the outset.

First, many people are put off by celebrity, but, paradoxically, they also find famous people who are not celebrities interesting (see page 5 of the report for the numbers). This produces the a rather curious, but important, question for people in charities building relationships with high profile figures: when do ‘celebrities’ become ‘famous’ (in the public eye), and thus more interesting to more people? For the analyst this fact presents considerable challenges for interpreting trends about engagement with celebrity: what does the word actually mean for different groups of people? How can we use it in our questions?

Second, most people claim that they do not pay more attention to campaigns fronted by celebrity, but they do think that such campaigns do work for other people (see page 8). Celebrity fronted campaigns may therefore be legitimated in the public mind by their perceived popularity, even if they are not, in fact, that popular.

Other interesting results are the way that people engage with what they consider to be celebrity news – which is generally for a short time and as a result of being lead to it while looking at other media content. However that will have to be set in the context of ongoing qualitative research which I am conducting with focus groups (and which I will report on later) which indicates that celebrity advocacy and celebrities’ work with charity is prominent in many people’s minds. They are often ready and willing to talk about it. The survey also suggests that significant minorities of people (20% of respondents) respond directly to the appeals of famous people (note the wording of the question) in some way.

This survey was one of two conducted with the UK Public Opinion Monitor. The first, conducted late last year, repeated a media use survey which had conducted by Nick Couldry, Sonia Livingstone and Tim Markham in 2005. They had conducted that survey as part of their ‘Public Connection‘ research project examining the relationships between media consumption and citizenship. It had interesting findings relevant for the study of celebrity advocacy which we wanted to update as part of this research. The IDS’ preliminary report from the 2010 media use survey is available here.

I will be analysing the responses to these surveys further over coming weeks and examining patterns in responses according to gender, social grouping and media consumption. If you have any further enquiries about these responses, or suggestions for that analysis, please let me know.

About Dan Brockington

Researcher at the University of Sheffield
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9 Responses to A survey of public responses to celebrity advocacy

  1. Your research is interesting but misses a fundamental point. You have assumed charities get celeb support to gain public support. You seem to think there’s a direct link – it’s much more subtle.

    One of the reasons for getting celeb support is to get coverage that will increase awareness. A large number of neig outlets won’t cover something without a celeb. Jade Goody caused a provable increase in the level of cervical smear tests. Would that have happened without Jade?

    In simple PR/fundraising terms, you are less likely to give to am issue you haven’t heard about.

    The Daily Mail website is now one of the world’s largest source of celeb news – 100m unique users a month (or there abouts). Not all audiences consume media that is thoughtful & provocative.

    Also you ignore the value of supporter reinforcement. For that you’d need to ask how people feel about hearing that a celeb was supporting a cause they care about. You seen to assume it’s all about media & PR. It’s much more than that. Have you been to a charity ball & seen how keen people are to have their photo taken with a dances from Strictly Come Dancing?

  2. lulastic says:

    Some great insight here, thanks for sharing.
    I too noticed the above missing point – often times having celebrity involvement is the only way an issue gets coverage. At it’s most simple using a celeb is simply a way to make a campaign “newsworthy”.
    I’d be interested in knowing whether there is a negative trade – does celebrity involvement somehow discredit a campaign albeit in an almost subconscious way / promote values that are long term not good for mobilising people? I.e- only VIP’s can create change or now that Clooneys sorting it out there is no need for my voice etc

  3. Dear CC,

    Thanks for looking at this survey. I think you are generally right (as usual) with respect to the work of celebrity for charity, and off the mark with respect to the purpose of this survey.

    Specifically, I think you are right about the importance of celebrity for supporter reinforcement, about generally raising awareness, and about the complexity of links between celebrity advocacy and public action.

    Incidentally I haven’t seen the data about Jade Goody’s impact (please send me them) but there is a fantastic case study of Katie Couric’s work promoting colonoscopies in the US with a quite remarkable increase in the number of colonoscopies taking place as a result of her intervention. The sample size of the study is 95,000 (!) and the difference indisputable (although there is a dissenting opinion as to its value). Her work also prompted more celebrities to make public their cancer checks and screening. Even Homer Simpson had one.

    You are off the mark about the survey because cannot use a public survey like this to measure all of those effects. You need to see this survey as part of a broader set of research activities which will be able to answer some of the issues you raise. Remember in surveys like this you are allowed just 15-20 questions, and responses should ideally involve no typing. This places limits on what you can ask, and you have to use other tasks to explore some of the issues you raise.

    You do not use a general survey to look at supporter reinforcement. You need a survey targeted at people attending such meetings for that sort of thing, or in depth interviews with people who have gone to them (which is what I have used). Likewise you cannot use a survey like this to consider the role of celebrity in prompting awareness of specific causes (for which you need campaign evaluations) or of celebrity in getting stories into the news, for that you need a sample of press releases with and without celebrity and track their success rate in getting published, or samples of news stories (I am doing the latter). In this respect your warnings are welcome because it is easy for a large survey like this to be interpreted inappropriately.

    The great strength however of a survey like this is its ability to say things about the general views of a representative sample of the population. I think it is useful to learn about what the public thinks about advocacy by celebrities and the famous in general because that is the context in which so much of the specific advocacy which charities launch is read and interpreted. This survey will make that possible.

    • Michelle Imison says:

      Hi there again, Dan – there is some evidence on ‘the Kylie effect’: increases in breast cancer screening by (especially young) Australian women in the weeks and months following her breast cancer diagnosis in 2005. It was published in the Medical Journal of Australia; if you can’t access it (behind a paywall), let me know and I can get you a copy.


  4. Ian Thorpe says:

    A quick question. To what extent do you think that people might be less than candid in their responses leading to a response bias? It occurs to me that people might say that they don’t like celebrity news and are not influenced by it in terms of the causes they support, but this might be because they feel they shouldn’t be influenced by it and are reluctant to admit it, or that they are simply unaware of the influence. I wonder about this since you mentioned that “most people claim that they do not pay more attention to campaigns fronted by celebrity, but they do think that such campaigns do work for other people”. You mention this possible bias in the report but I don’t get a sense for how likely you think it is.

  5. Graham Harrison says:

    Fascinating stuff! A lot of ways one might unpack and pursue… gradations of celebrity, perceptions of personal authenticity, presentation of celebrity within a campaign or appeal… Large public surveys can show inconsistent values: maybe celebs are like Tories: polls show fewer like them than election results reveal! There seems to be a message of moderation throughout the findings – that public attitudes to celebrity are cautious or minimally engaged. Perhaps the view that others are assumed to be influenced by celebs is a proxy response which is more likely an acknowledgement that celebrity media prominence and endorsement is so widespread. The prominence of celebs – the spectacle of ‘strictly whatever’ or ‘thingy idol’ – seems to generate a message that celebrity matters and that celebrity imagery influences public norms. Even if they don’t…

  6. Michelle Imison says:

    Hi Dan –

    I was really pleased to discover this work; I’m researching the Australian news media’s coverage of health from the developing world, and will certainly find insights like yours useful in some of my future writing based on the reflections of development NGOs’ (domestic) media work around health.

    There’s plenty of interest in what you have to say and I look forward to reading more findings. However, I did want to ask about one comment above that really stood out to me:

    ‘Second, most people claim that they do not pay more attention to campaigns fronted by celebrity, but they do think that such campaigns do work for other people.’

    This seems to me an advocacy-related manifestation of the old ‘yes well, *other* people are probably influenced by advertising, but I’m far too clever to be taken in by it’ line. To what extent did you manage to tease out this observation in the focus groups?


  7. Pingback: The Politics of Celebrity Advocacy

  8. Pingback: Consuming Celebrity Advocacy | Development@ Manchester

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