Qualitative methods of audience research, that combine focus groups, interviews or diaries, are a useful way to examine the meaning of some of the numbers generated by quantitative surveys of perceptions of celebrity advocacy and engagement in celebrity media (reported in the previous blog). Qualitative research involving a mixture of focus group work and diaries was used with great effect in Nick Couldry, Sonia Livingstone and Tim Markham’s work on Public Connection and in Martin Scott’s research on portrayals and understandings of distant others on television.
I am currently half way through focus group work which is exploring attitudes to celebrity advocacy in London and Manchester; we have undertaken seven groups (50 people altogether) so far. This is a small number. However I have the advantage of working with TWResearch and Alice Fenyoe whose work with the IBT and with NGOs for Make Poverty History has given her a great deal of experience in these issues, and a much larger body of research upon which to draw when interpreting the results. I think her interim report on the London groups provides some interesting preliminary findings that merit sharing and discussing. The report is viewable on line, or click here for a 7 MB download. There are four main points to draw out from it.
First, people are very much aware of diverse forms of celebrity advocacy. They are able to talk about it, discuss it at length and enjoyed talking about it and arguing over it. While the quantitative data indicated that many people were engaging with this material lightly, these engagements still allow them to absorb a great deal. This is in line with Tim Markham’s work on this topic, expressed in a recent symposium.
Second, while there were always examples of celebrity support that were unpopular there was a reluctance to condemn much celebrity advocacy too much. The reluctance was partly a result of most people defining successful interventions by the amount of money they raised. This is the third point. Charities and celebrity advocacy was thought to be about raising money and not about political campaigning or other forms of action. And because celebrity advocacy was perceived to be good at raising money for deserving causes people are tolerant of it.
Fourth, while people are able to talk about celebrities’ work for good causes, they are much less able to talk about the causes supported. People will be aware of what famous people are doing, but much less of the organisation or issue that they are supporting.
One way of summarizing the third and fourth points is that celebrities benefit substantially from these engagements with charities. People become more aware of the famous people involved; more so, in some cases, than they become aware of the charities. This is interesting because, as I have described earlier, one of the defining features of interactions between the celebrity industries and the charitable sector is their inequality. Charities do not pay celebrities for their work, they are asking for favours and are often turned away; they are at the bottom of the pile. However is it possible that working for charities is undervalued by the talent industry? If it was more realistically valued, could that change the rather unequal relations that NGOs suffer from?
These results also seem to indicate that, for the development sector, the idea that celebrity engagements keep people firmly thinking that charitable work is about giving money, not getting engaged politically. This rather confirms the fears of the Finding Frames report. Once again you have to put this in context. Different methods, such as Lucy Bennett’s work among fan communities provides a different picture of the kind of political engagements that are possible. But for people who are not fans, political engagement via celebrity appears to be thin.
I am somewhat hesitant about putting these interim findings out. The results in the last blog were rather misinterpreted by the Third Sector article on them. The article’s headline proclaiming ‘Most people take no notice of celebrities promoting charity messages’, rather substantially missed the point that people say that they are interested in what the famous advocate, even if they say that they are not interested in celebrities. However one cannot determine how research is viewed, so as always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.