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What’s the True Value of Celebrity Political Endorsements?

What do Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney all have in common? (Besides the fact that they’re multimillionaires in possession of the sort of deft cinematic touch that enthralls America.)

If you guessed that they’re all card-carrying members of the “Re-elect Barry” club, you’re right. They’ve also all made individual contributions to Obama’s campaign that exceed the average American’s annual salary.

A yellowed MAD Magazine paperback from the early “˜70s first introduced me to the concept of celebrities throwing their cultural cache behind political candidates. It noted that Democrats had Woody Guthrie and Barbra Streisand to stump for them, while Republicans were forced to rely on boring country music stars. The more things change, eh?

While I thought it might be fun to debate which of our two esteemed parties attracts the coolest backers (I’ll see your Republican Sarah Michelle Gellar and raise you a Democrat Meryl Streep!), my class angst is acting up right now, leaving me rather disillusioned with the whole concept of celebrity endorsements.

I suspect (and a 2010 study at North Carolina State University supports this theory) that celebrities think they’re more politically influential than they actually are. That Lindsay Lohan mistakenly thought Obama would want her to hit the campaign trail for him in 2008, and that this facile bit of news garnered a lot of media attention, encapsulates how Western culture elevates ignorant celebrity activism at the expense of more informed, but less opulently sourced, opinions.

Criticizing the above video is like shooting proverbial fish in a barrel. The first time I watched it, when Demi Moore pledges “to smile more,”* I got really giddy in the same way I do when I’m about to tune into a reality show involving hot tubs. (I can’t help it, I just LOVE feeling smug sometimes). There are quite a few other questionable pledges, but the one that really gets me is when Ashton Kutcher pledges “to always represent my country with pride, dignity and honesty.” Now, I don’t care that his pledge doesn’t jibe with his prankster, stoner-dude persona. What bothers me is the presumption of Kutcher and other celebrities, who are not elected officials, who often display an alarming lack of basic understanding of politics and who are generally very disconnected from the day-to-day lives of the rest of America, that they “represent” us in some meaningful or inherently noble way.

I’m not saying political candidates should exclusively tout their (usually very tenuous) connections to Joe the Plumber-esque iterations of blue-collar America. That stuff is patronizing and sycophantic to the nth degree.

Nor do I want to discount candidates’ need to fundraise–certainly no one does that better than the rich and beautiful, Exhibit A being the unparalleled ability of Scarlett Johansson and Anna Wintour to gather up a bunch of models and intimidate them into voting.

But during a presidential election revolving heavily around themes of class and privilege on BOTH sides of the aisle, whether it’s Obama praising the Occupy movement or Republicans furiously Googling “Romney net worth” (seriously, it was the third suggestion when I started searching his name”¦), it’s imperative that candidates understand celebrity endorsements will appear suspect and even elitist to a wider swathe of Americans than usual.

More than ever, the onus is on candidates to demonstrate they are genuinely more focused on the needs of hardscrabble “normals” than the desires of the wealthy and immaculately coiffed.  No one will buy that Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama have felt the sting of the recession on a personal level, but this election may well hinge on one of them proving they can best empathize with the plight of the 99%.

Because as much as the A-list may be ideologically invested in a certain candidate, it’s the normals whose personal lives will be most deeply affected by policy changes.** And it’s the normals who’ll be in the trenches doing the dirty work, running phone banks, passing out literature and organizing at the grass-roots level.

Come to think of it, it’s always the teeming mass of normals that decides elections. Figuring out how to get the political establishment and media industry to recognize and respect that is another matter.

*In light of Demi Moore’s very recent personal struggles, I feel a little weird about criticizing her pledge, particularly because Persephone is very invested in positivity and I think that’s what Demi was aiming for. However, in light of this video being published at a time when many Americans were losing their homes, to me it comes across as a little “let them eat cake.”

**There are some issues, like gay marriage and abortion rights, which cut across class barriers, but virtually anything fiscal is bound to wind up negatively affecting the lower classes more than the upper class. Conversely, I can’t think of any issue that could disproportionately harm the wealthy.

23 replies on “What’s the True Value of Celebrity Political Endorsements?”

Kind of related: this morning when we were driving, the husband and I heard Muse’s “Uprising”, which is a song he really likes. I like Muse, too, but I was thinking about the song, which is obviously very politically driven and talks about not letting the status quo hold us down, and repress us as a society, etc. Good message and one that we feel strongly about. But I was talking with him about how the lead singer of Muse is married to Kate Hudson, who is a highly successful actress and probably commands several million dollars a movie, not to mention comes from a huge acting family who are obviously quite wealthy and privileged. And I was just musing (ha) if you will, about how much these people could really care about the plight of the ‘average’ person. Not to say the band members in Muse don’t remember what it’s like to struggle, and not to say that they aren’t being repressed in their own way, or aren’t affected/upset by the things that go on in our world…but it’s just weird to listen to this song talking about taking the power back and dissing the ‘system’ – when the guy’s wife is a multi-millionare celebrity. It takes some credibility away. And then I feel guilty, because any support us ‘little guys’ can get is welcomed, but I just can’t imagine Kate Hudson sitting around after some awards show, taking off her Gucci or Dior or whatever, talking about what injustices the people in this country suffer.

Of course, those could totally be wrong assumptions and it could be that she and other celebrities care very much. Obviously people like Clooney put their money where their mouth is. Stars like Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, etc all have been out there picketing and saying their piece. But it still just feels a bit weird from time to time to see celebs jumping on political bandwagons, especially when it has to do with the economy/financial topics because these people are just so wealthy and privileged and detached from the rest of the country in so many ways. I don’t know. It’s too early to form coherent thoughts.

Stuff like this doesn’t happen at all in the Netherlands. Asking someone who you voted for is even a bit ..iffy. So I think this is a bit funny because it follows the line of “You like celeb A and celeb A likes me. You must love me!” while it should definitely be about the program (do you guys have websites that tell you with some easy questions on which political party to vote? I know the system is very different but still ..).

Here in the UK the distinctions between the parties are a lot smaller and so much class consciousness is invested in your party choice that it’s the same – you just don’t ask.

Plus, it’s almost meaningless here, because almost everyone hates all the parties and winds up choosing them based on who they hate least. I would get nothing from “I voted Conservative” other than “oh, he’s a bit posh”. All too often it has no association with actual ideology at all.

I’ve never paid much attention to who celebrities endorse. (Granted, I’ve only been old enough to vote in one presidential election. I didn’t even get to vote because of some obnoxious first time voter laws in my state. That is another story for another time.)

Anyway, the only time I pay attention to who celebrities endorse is when celebrities come out as being Republican. (See Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze, Jr.) At that moment, I hear the needle-on-a-record-scratch and any love I had for that celebrity is gone. Y U NO VOTE DEMOCRAT, SMG? Y U HATE MY POLITICAL BELIEFS, FREDDIE?

It’s actually a kind of boring story. In Michigan, first time voters can’t get absentee ballots if they registered to vote by mail. That means that a whole slew of college kids are away from home for elections (because who can drive 6+ hours round trip on a Tuesday in November?) and unable to vote. I’ve been away at school for every election, so I haven’t been able to vote yet. Changing my address to my one at school for the sake of voting would be a huge ordeal because I would just need to change it again every few months.

Last summer, I went to my local township hall to see if I could register for an absentee ballot because I showed up in person. (http://www.michigan.gov/sos/0,1607,7-127-1633_11619-123989–,00.html Apparently, people that register in person can have absentee ballots their first time voting.) The people at the township hall told me it was too late to show myself in person for the sake of an absentee ballot. I’m screwed until I can be home for an election.

One of my friends has this idea that the first time voter law is a conspiracy theory to keep young voters out of the polls. This is entirely possible.

No doubt celebrities bring in the money. If celebrities can convince people to vote for one candidate the way they convinced people to buy Fiji Water, then it’s worth it for candidates to seek their endorsement. I don’t really see anything wrong with celebrities using their money to campaign for measures and candidates that they support. In fact, I think that’s a very “normal” thing to do–they just do it on a different scale. Instead of putting signs up in their yard or gathering signatures on street corners, they are making commercials and hosting fundraiser dinners. If I had lots of disposable money and fame, I’d probably donate heaps of it too to causes and people I support. Do they personally sway voters? Probably not that many, but if Oprah gives Obama a 15 minute segment on her show, she’s getting his message out to 15 million people (probably more). That’s pretty powerful. And it’s money he didn’t have to spend. So I don’t know, the value of celebrity endorsements? I think it’s pretty high.

I agree that the bulk of the value of celebrity endorsements lies in generating high volumes of funds for candidates’ campaigns. And I hadn’t thought of it in the sense that, for someone rich, throwing that much money at a cause is fairly normal — definitely agree there too.

I don’t know if this is just wishful thinking on my part, but my hope is that some of the momentum from movements like Occupy Wallstreet (incidentally: I have major issues with some of their stances, but overall think drawing some attention to the growing gap between classes in this country is a good thing) will affect this election and, though candidates will pretty much HAVE to keep taking celebrity/random-rich-people endorsements, they find a way to do it while still emphasizing that their priorities are on trying to rebuild our economy and support the many Americans who live at or below the poverty level.

The only time I could even imagine caring who a celebrity endorses is if I knew they were somehow connected to a certain issue. For example, if legalizing marijuana is an important issue to me and someone like Willie Nelson endorses a certain candidate then I might look into that candidate’s stance. Or if I’m looking for a candidate who supports same-sex marriage and I hear Ellen or NPH is endorsing someone, then I’ll check them out. But I’m not going to blindly say “Wait, Lady Gaga is voting for him?! Count me in!” nor am I going to change my mind if it’s set on a particular candidate.

I agree. Kinda like how Obama was just in SF and LA to raise money  and talk with a bunch of people. It really grinds my gears that politicians come here to get money and ignore the rest of the state. The most recent exception being Bush who came to my city when I was in high school to give a speech and visit an elementary school that was named after him.

Pols visiting hyper-populated urban centers vs. rural areas is a dilemma pretty similar to accepting/endorsing/hobnobbing with rich people vs. committing an appropriate amount of time to hanging out with not-so-rich people. Practically, I understand why certain things have to take precedence, but ideologically I hope politicians realize that now, more than ever, people are scrutinizing these types of decisions

OT: I will now name an elementary school Leonardo DiCaprio and wait.

I’m trying to think of a scenario in which I would think it was awesome that somebody changed their mind based on a celebrity endorsement.  Maybe if they knew a lot about the politics of the celebrity, but didn’t know much about the candidates?  Or…if the celebrity were already an openly gay/openly pro-choice/openly whatever person and that was just part of their shtick?

I guess if people are really, really, really busy and can’t look into the platforms of the politicians, it could help.  But then why would people know more about the platforms of celebrities?

So I failed at my original plan of trying to find a situation that would be plausible and not make me feel bad for our collective lot.

Hahaha, I like the unique way you’re approaching this! I can almost get my head around a scenario where Lady Gaga is very important to a young-ish person who lives in a fairly isolated environment where maybe they don’t personally know anyone who’s supportive of gay rights, but Gaga’s activism turns them on to politics, gets them involved, gives them some hope, etc. It definitely still hinges on paying more attention to celebrities than politicians, but I guess that’s just par for the course with a lot of kids these days?

Lady Gaga is also really involved in trying to get people to vote. I’ve been to two of her concerts (yeah, I like her; I can’t help it), and she had voter registration booths at both of them. I feel like anything that kids involved in politics/social activism is generally a good thing.

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