Celebrity conservation: can famous faces protect natural places?

Mike Tyson and his Bengal tiger

The environmental impacts of celebrities can be even more fickle than their fame. From Justin Bieber’s Capuchin monkey ‘Mally‘ to Mike Tyson’s Bengal tigers, celebrities have been repeatedly criticised for endangering threatened species by heightening demand for wildlife trafficking. But these irresponsible individuals are countered by a suite of stars who use their fame as a platform to support conservation.

An array of A-listers, including Harrison Ford and Leonardo DiCaprio, have become ambassadors for environmental NGOs. In 2006, 90% of Forbes top 100 celebrities were engaged in celebrity advocacy, while 75% of the largest charities in the UK employed celebrity liaison officers. These celebrities use their personal brand to bring high-profile issues to the public’s attention, providing ‘information shortcuts’ for average citizens.

Celebrity advocacy has produced fantastic results for both environmental and developmental causes. Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech emphasising climate change at the 2016 Academy Awards led to a huge increase in the volume of news articles, social media posts and information searches. A CNN interview with Angelina Jolie raised $500,000 in donations for the UNHCR.

Celebrity advocacy is thought to be impactful due to their personal wealth, elite connections and public influence. They can use their wealth and connections to get on the ground and do conservation. As they are less hampered by state bureaucracy and political games they can be more efficient and direct conservation actors. They can harness their political influence to pressurise elites into committing more funds and attention to conservation issues. But most of all, as prominent public figures they can bring attention to environmental issues and encourage popular involvement. The ability of a celebrity to create public environmental concern and involvement is dependent on the celebrities credibility and the extent to which the star’s personal brand fits with the environmental message. When these criteria are met, at the very least the celebrity will motivate curiosity and inspire people to investigate the issue further.

Celebrities have become an essential component of conservation NGO advertising campaigns. Their non-expert role is enables them to position themselves as a member of the public, for example Angelina Jolie stating “I don’t believe I feel differently from other people”. Prince William’s claim that “we face a wildlife catastrophe unless we act now” shows how celebrities are used to create shared environmental problems and solutions to mobilise publics rather than individuals. VIPs become witnesses of these shared environmental problems, acting as important bridges between publics and distant destruction. They ‘impersonate’ moral pleas, lending a more human and situated understanding to complex problems.

Using celebrities’ personal brands for conservation can be difficult. Often the superstar can overshadow the issue. Angelina Jolie’s work for the UNHCR was been criticised for emphasising her personal responses to the suffering. This focuses attention on the celebrity’s emotion and less on the cause. A study in the UK found that audiences engaged more with conservation messages presented by one of three prominent UK celebrities (David Beckham, Chris Packham or Prince William) than a non-celebrity control. However, participants were less likely to recall the campaign message presented by adverts featuring the celebrities. Often the audience’s pre-existing relationship with the celebrity can overwhelm the environmental message.

Crawford Allen, Chris Packham, David Beckham and HRH Prince William (Clockwise from top left). Used in study to assess celebrity advocacy impact.

The fickle nature of fame means that a celebrities advocacy potential is not stable. Once a celebrities’ 15 minutes are up their advocacy impact will drop. Alternatively, if a celebrity becomes embroiled in controversy this can reflect back onto the causes they support. For example, following a slew of sexual assault allegations Harvey Weinstein was forced to resign from the Oceana board. Furthermore, if a celebrity’s conservation message is incorrect or damaging, they are difficult to hold to account.

Audiences are also often not as interested in celebrities as is widely assumed. A study of celebrity advocacy in the New York Times showed that while some stars were able to generate hundreds of articles about causes they supported, other A-listers failed to create the same media attention. A survey-based study in the UK found that awareness of major NGO brands was high, but knowledge of celebrity advocates for these brands was low, despite several NGOs having extensive celebrity ambassador programmes. Celebrity does not guarantee public engagement.

Celebrities provide simplified messages that often fail to address structural issues. For example, after the final episode of Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II aired, an article issued by the Blue Planet team encouraged people to get involved with beach cleans, consume sustainably sourced seafood, use less electricity and use less plastic. But public behaviour change will have no impact without a corresponding shift in corporate regulation. Celebrity advocacy repeatedly fails to hold big business and governments to account. These institutions are the main cause of marine problems like industrial fishing, water pollution and ocean acidification. Blue Planet II ignored these causes, even documented a recovering Norwegian fishery. Only  1% of global fisheries are recovering. This underlines the inability of celebrities and mainstream media to challenge the structural roots of environmental issues.

An orca near a Norwegian fishing vessel in Blue Planet II

This refusal to address structural issues can be attributed to the strong links between celebrities and consumer culture. These links are underlined by the use of celebrities to advocate for environmental issues on traditional marketing mediums, like television advertising. On television, the advertising of environmental issues is interspersed between adverts for consumer goods. Celebrities are advocating for these environmental issues in the same way that other celebrities are advertising for consumer goods in adjacent commercials. So it is not surprising that people begin to interact with environmental issues as though they are another good to be mindlessly consumed. People approach environmental problems within a charitable frame, and think that they can be solved by donating money to NGOs, when in fact they require intense political lobbying.

These are important issues with carelessly using celebrity advocacy. However, this does not mean that NGOs should discard the brand potential of celebrity advocates. Instead they should utilise them in alternative ways that harness their potential while minimising adverse impacts.

First, celebrities should not be used by themselves, they should be used in allegiance with locals and experts. This could result in more nuanced messages, with fully identified problems and more encompassing solutions.

Celebrities and their conservation causes

Second, celebrities are obviously unable to identify structural problems due to their positioning at the centre of consumer culture. Let more educated experts identify the causes of environmental problems, and use celebrities to enthuse audiences about possible solutions. These solutions should include ethical consumption and public participation, but should also include political lobbying. This would shift audience responses from reaching into their pocket to engaging in environmental politics.

Finally, don’t use celebrities in broad brush campaigns. As we have seen, the ‘popular appeal’ of celebrities is over-stated, so why do they continue to be used in target-less broadcasting campaigns? Social marketing has shown that targeting an audience is essential. Celebrities would be better used in narrow-casting. Local campaigns that reach out to identified audiences through more specialised media could benefit from celebrity involvement. This would not be as glamorous nor as high profile, but here celebrity advocacy would standout rather than fading into the background of the 3,500 marketing messages we see a day.


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