Can a Celebrity Really Ply Fame for Good?

ColumnWhere celebrity becomes conscious.

“I don’t see myself as a celebrity, I don’t want to be one,” Bristol Palin told Good Morning America in 2009. “But I think using this experience in my life to help others, I think it’s a blessing.” Palin, a single mother at age 18, had just signed on with The Candie’s Foundation to serve as a teen ambassador to raise awareness about teen pregnancy. Her message was one of abstinence, telling the morning show that motherhood is “a 24-hour job and that’s a huge responsibility. Your priorities completely change once you have a baby.”

The combination of motherhood and message should have been a clear one, yet Palin’s turn as a spokesperson was muddied from the start. Flash forward a couple years and the internet is buzzing with a new Bristol Palin headline: “Candie’s Foundation paid Bristol Palin $262,500 in 2009.” How much did they give towards grants for programs actually preventing teen pregnancy? A cool $35,000. Palin’s fee was roughly seven times what Candie’s actually put towards prevention. As ThinkProgress points out, “the Candie’s Foundation appears to be geared towards improving the public image of [executive Neil Cole’s] company rather than reducing teen pregnancy.”

Candie’s responded by defended Palin’s fees with statistics. As the shoe retailer explains,

In a recent independent national survey of 1,000 teens that compared a Bristol Palin PSA with those of another national teen pregnancy organization that use non-famous teens, more than twice as many teens (57% vs. 27%), said Bristol’s PSA “Got my attention,” three times as many (41% vs. 11%), said it was “powerful”, and more than twice as many (38% vs. 16%), said it was “memorable”.

So if awareness was raised, why does this news rub raw? Candie’s never responded to our follow-up on the issue. Perhaps they feel they’ve already responded with their note about numbers. The point was made, so why does it matter how it was made?

The difference may be in the dollars. While many initially questioned Palin’s credibility as a teen mother promoting abstinence, in between appearing on Dancing with the Stars and partying on private jets, it was her paycheck which caused the world and internet to launch into a toddler-worthy tizzy. The light Palin may or may not have shined on teen pregnancy immediately seemed soiled. After all, why did she have to be paid so much for doing a good deed?

I know this expectation might exist in a world without, but doesn’t it seem like social causes should exist outside a world of money and marketing? As freedom of speech still stands in this country, Bristol Palin has every right to promote her own message. But in the end, how credible can the messenger be when a large cash bonus is involved? What’s more disturbing is that humanitarian efforts or special causes now seem to be more about branding a career than really being, well, humanitarian efforts or special causes.

We’ll never know if Palin would have signed on as a spokesperson for teen abstinence if she hadn’t been paid. This is both unfortunate for Palin and her point. While Palin is certainly not the first celebrity to be compensated as a spokesman, it’s disheartening to see the Candie’s Foundation turn a good cause (preventing teen pregnancy), into a celebrity endorsement deal. It seems no different from a business exchange that Tiger Woods made with Nike or a contract Natalie Portman signed with Dior.

But when it comes to authentic messaging about serious issues, it’s enough to push us a little bit closer off the mountaintop into the Valley of Cynicism, populated by Charlie Sheen’s warlocks, Kayne West’s hubris, and Donald Trump’s hair. Why should we listen to anything celebrities have to say when they are quite possibly being paid to say it?

Let’s talk about Elizabeth Taylor.

When the Hollywood legend passed away, she was remembered for her career, her men, her beauty; but perhaps most of all, for her ground-breaking work in AIDS awareness. Taylor was the Founding International Chairman for amfAR, and the organization credits her celebrity with bringing the issue of HIV and AIDS into the mainstream of public awareness. At her death, Elton John praised “her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand.” Nancy Reagan called Taylor “Passionate – and compassionate – about everything in her life, including her family, her friends, and especially the victims of AIDS.”

Was she ever paid for it? I contacted amfAR to see if Taylor ever received compensation for her role and did not receive a response. Perhaps it was because they were confused as to why I was asking in the first place. After all, does it matter? And if Taylor was in fact paid for her good deeds, would we ever think to fault her like we did Bristol Palin? Not likely, but why? Because no one, including myself, could ever doubt that Taylor was anything but sincere in her work. conducted a poll that perhaps sums it up best. Asking readers to weigh in on celebrity endorsements for noble causes, an overwhelming 41% replied they are in favor of it if celebrities seem sincere. I conducted my own (completely unscientific) poll and found that most people were fine with celebrity causes, as long as the cause received the attention it deserves. In fact, several seemed to consider payment completely besides the point. Why get upset if the cause gets attention?

Except that’s exactly what everyone did with Bristol Palin the other week.

Perhaps, then, it depends on if we agree with what the celebrity is saying. As Taylor herself famously said, “Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility.” She set a firm precedent for other film stars to use their notoriety to bring attention to serious issues, and many celebrities have taken up just causes.

Perhaps none who have done so more publicly than Angelina Jolie. Jolie, who works as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Jolie is literally in trenches. Just last week, the actress visited Libyan refugees in Tunisia. As with Elizabeth Taylor, it feels uncomfortably cynical to be critical of Jolie’s tremendous humanitarian work, no matter what motivates her to do it. The same applies to her fellow Hollywood advocates active in social reform, as evidenced by George Clooney’s work in Darfur, Don Cheadle’s work as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Environmental Programme, or singer Shakira’s role as a UNICEF ambassador. Celebrities can be master handlers of the public, and it’s difficult to argue that the light they shed on these causes is anything but beneficial.

And then, there is how the celebrity says it. Case in point: Tom Cruise’s infamous escapades in 2005, in which he declared his love for Katie Holmes while deriding Matt Lauer for his “glib” comprehension of psychiatry. Cruise was promoting Scientology’s anti-psychiatry stance, and he clearly was on a mission to message the public. That he dressed it in a giant ball of couch-jumping mania turned off most people, pitching his career into a downward spiral that only a spoof of another Hollywood megalomaniac in 2008’s Tropic Thunder was able to stall. His last film, Knight and Day, had a respectable opening at $20 million. But when you’re talking in the language of superstars, this reads as a failure. As E! reports, “On the other hand, Cruise hasn’t had a $100 million domestic hit since 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, released in the summer following the actor’s infamous Oprah couch jump.”

Experts have addressed celebrity endorsements in a study entitled “Endorsing Products for Money: The Role of the Correspondence Bias in Celebrity Advertising.” As scholars from, among others, the University of Cincinnati wrote, “the correspondence bias is the tendency to assume that a person’s behavior is a true reflection of their beliefs or opinions, and thus, their underlying dispositions when in fact, their behavior could be explained entirely by situational factors. In other words, people make strong inferences from behavior and fail to adjust sufficiently for situational constraints.” In celebrity endorsements, the situational constraints can be money. Or mania.

Nineteenth-century satirist Oscar Wilde wrote, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” When considering celebrity consciousness, is this necessarily bad if they can use it to influence for the good? No. But apparently, it’s as long as we agree with what constitutes good and that we’re all on board with who is saying it.

This is another installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.


Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.