Influencers not always right for humanitarian causes
Development organizations around the world have long utilized various methods to bring attention to humanitarian causes. They launch global campaigns on television and social media, they hold rallies on streets, and they organize large concerts, such as the famous Live Aid concert in the 1980s and Live Earth in 2007. One example of such methods today is the involvement of celebrities.
Celebrity involvement in the development field has evolved from merely pledging to participate in charitable events to actively campaigning. Celebrities have not just become famous voices speaking for development organizations, but expert advocates who employ their broad fan bases for maximum impact.
International organizations such as UNICEF, Oxfam and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have long linked development and aid appeals with the status of celebrities. George Clooney is now synonymous with Darfur, Angelina Jolie with the plight of refugees, and Leonardo DiCaprio with climate change. They have succeeded in shining the global spotlight on causes that require universal attention and action. This shift from financial contribution to active advocacy has been driven partly by a need to prove credibility.
This approach to international philanthropy is credited to Paul Schervish, a professor of sociology and director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College in the US. With his theory of “catalytic philanthropy,” Schervish explains that it is more effective for celebrities to participate in events such as benefit concerts than to just donate their money to causes. This way, celebrities can influence many more people to give and contribute.
And rightly so. Development and aid are not attractive causes. People’s attention span and empathy have been reduced to a fleeting post on Twitter and perhaps a change in their profile picture to show solidarity. It is therefore a constant challenge to appeal to the emotions and inspire action in an audience for the longer term, especially with slow-burn issues such as the quality of primary education or deforestation.
With the rise of social media influencers and their growing numbers of followers on multiple platforms, aid organizations are now beginning to use regional and local influencers as ambassadors to speak for their causes. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, organizations now understand influencers’ unique outreach within their own communities and thus have capitalized on the fact that people can relate to them much more than they can to international celebrities in Hollywood or elsewhere.
Recently, a new wave of young Arab influencers has been signed up or invited by many aid organizations, notably UN agencies, to highlight the plight of refugees. They include fashion bloggers and lifestyle influencers. Despite their growing base of followers, which sometimes runs into the millions, one can’t help but wonder if their coverage helps or is counterproductive.
In our celebrity-obsessed culture, organizations now understand influencers’ unique outreach within their own communities
Asma I. Abdulmalik
For one, flying influencers to events costs money, and they do not come cheap. In most cases, agencies have to cover their flight and accommodation expenses, as well as comply with their conditions and requirements. Surely, there are those that waive the costs, but in most cases there are still costs involved in hosting them.
The other concerning part of using influencers is that it comes off as insincere. We have become apathetic to their messages because most of us can see right through them. Celebrities who dress for the cameras in Burberry boots and fancy sunglasses, taking shots of themselves with their phone camera, do a disservice to the cause. Their one-time experience in the field is mere publicity — a feel-good attempt that is now considered a prerequisite for any celebrity or influencer’s brand. The footage almost always focuses on how the celebrity is affected by the horrible conditions they are witnessing and concludes with shots of him or her hugging a few local children.
Another alarming consequence of involving influencers is that it reduces the cause to a few headlines surrounding the influencer, rather than the issue itself. The oversimplification of the complex reality that millions suffer every day leaves little room for real analysis and long-term resolutions. And so, rather than directing our focus on how we can rally our efforts to bring realistic solutions to these causes, our attention is absorbed by the lifestyle of the celebrity. Often enough, if a celebrity is too big, their popularity overshadows the cause.
It is an undeniable fact that celebrities and influencers are vital tools for promoting neglected global issues, but the key is to choose the right ones for each cause. Follower numbers is by no means an indicator of effective influence. Find those with a credible history of community work, who will not exploit the plight of the less fortunate for fame and fortune. Ensure that they volunteer their time and not burden you with high costs. Finally, and to understand if this approach is still effective, it is critical that one measures the immediate and long-term impact and success of utilizing influencers and celebrities.
This way, you will, with their help, make a difference.
• Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik