Back in March, celebrities lsuch as Gal Gadot, Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell found themselves going viral for all the wrong reasons.
In the thick of the COVID-19 outbreak, a lineup of 25 well-known faces attempted to inspire hope and forge some level of national unity by recording a spliced cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. What surely started with good intentions resulted in a painful two-minute video that was ultimately more awkward and altogether creepy than it was inspiring.
The internet backlash was relentless. The featured public figures found themselves brutally mocked by way of memes. Other social media users rightfully criticized the celebrities for pseudo-activism, demanding that they use their wealth and influence in a more direct way.
“Imagine — IMAGINE — having $17 million dollars and thinking that making a video clip of you singing one line of a song would help anyone,” said GQ writer Sophia Beniot via her Twitter.
The “Imagine” catastrophe is not unique. In the age of polarizing politics and social media, many celebrities have taken to activism and endorsements, mainly speaking to their enormous online audiences.
Admittedly, public figures using their influence to speak on political issues and social causes has had its moments.
For instance, in 2018, singer Taylor Swift posted to Instagram urging her young followers to register to vote. Impressively, Swift’s rare political plea was followed by 65,000 new voter registrations in 24 hours. Two days later, that number jumped to 166,000. Significantly, the newly registered voters were primarily young adults from ages 18-24.
Additionally, famed actor Leonardo DiCaprio has been commended for using his platform to influence environmental policy and conservation work. DiCaprio, who launched the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF) in 1998, has made incredible waves in the fight to preserve the environment.
Namely, DiCaprio (and members of his foundation) have donated over $80 million to environmentalist projects working in 50 different countries. He has also been instrumental in a number of efforts aimed towards protecting endangered species and marine life. Just last year, DiCaprio managed to convince Russian authorities to release 100 captive beluga whales.
Specifically, on social media, DiCaprio’s 29.9 million followers are regularly subjected to activist posts primarily centered around environmental and humanitarian causes which serve to educate on important issues.
Other influential public figures like Jim Carrey and Chrissy Teigen have used their own platforms to help erase the stigma surrounding subjects like mental illness and poverty.
Carrey, for one, has been outspoken about his experience with homelessness and has been an enormous promoter and contributor towards charities that help at-risk youth and people experiencing homelessness.
Teigen, along with a lineup of other celebrities, has spoken numerous times about her experience with mental illness. Teigen revealed in 2016 that she went through postpartum depression (PPD), while other public figures like Demi Lovato have advocated for awareness surrounding depression, eating disorders and addiction.
While Swift’s voter-registration plea and DiCaprio’s environmental activism have had more tangible results, celebrity discussion of their own life struggles (both with mental-health and otherwise), undeniably plays a role in helping their young audience feel more accepted, less ashamed and less alone.
But celebrities have time and again showed us through their failed attempts at activism, that we certainly shouldn’t be relying on Hollywood for inspiration.
As we saw with the “Imagine” video, celebrity activism can take away from the discussion of important issues, and miss the target altogether.
Back in June, a multitude of celebrities and corporations attempted to support the Black Lives Matter movement on social media by participating in #BlackoutTuesday. The trend involved the posting of a single black square on Instagram, usually accompanied by hashtags like #blacklivesmatter.
Their efforts were completely misguided in that Blackout Tuesday saw Instagram flooded with a sea of black squares which misplaced and diluted important resources and educational posts. Rather than being filled with valuable information, the #blacklivesmatter tag became saturated with empty, unspecific posts that read like a sorry expression of white guilt.
Celebrity activism can also be extremely inconsistent and uncredible.
It is not lost on scholars that the trend of celebrity endorsement has crucially undermined the words of experts. Celebrity expressions of activism face a lot of exposure, but very little accountability, which can lead their audiences (particularly young people) to misunderstand important issues and potentially act on those misunderstandings.
Additionally, according to a study conducted by the University of Manchester, celebrity endorsement of charities may not be effective at all. The study found that 66% of participants could not name any celebrities associated with a list of seven well-known charities and aid organizations. In most cases, celebrity endorsement has a bigger effect on the popularity of the public figure themselves, than it does on charitable support.
The bottom line is that celebrities and activism are, at best, frenemies. While public exposure of important causes can be an asset to progress, it can also be an underqualified and misleading distraction.
Perhaps the lesson here is that we should take activism into our own hands. As Patricia Hill Collins said, “Most activism is brought about by us ordinary people.”