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A can of worms: the downside of using celebrity endorsement in charity campaigns

In the wake of Comic Relief announcing that they're moving away from using celebrities to front films, we're wondering - what could be wrong with inviting celebrities to advocate for your cause? 

Last month, Comic Relief’s chief executive Liz Warner said that ‘the charity will move away from using celebrities to front films’[1]. This statement comes in the wake of mounting criticism of the well-known trope regularly used by international development campaigns – namely, (typically white) celebrities fronting video appeals on behalf of local people living in deprived areas in various countries across Africa[2].

When I was in my mid-teens, my family moved from Kenya where I was born and raised to rural North Wales. After I joined a new school, some of my peers asked me if I had previously lived in a mud hut and whether I knew what a computer was. Their enquiries and perceptions were, for the most part, not intentionally patronising or malicious (although I do wonder if they would have asked the same questions if I was white). Rather, I believe their perceptions were shaped by well-meaning but one-sided media narratives (such as those historically produced by Comic Relief) around the livelihoods of African people.

In a similar way, the motives of organisations like Comic Relief working in deprived parts of Africa are certainly not malicious, but some methods used to raise awareness and support around their causes feel old-fashioned, patronising, and at odds with the ways in which we’ve developed as a society since the heyday of overseas aid campaigns (e.g. Live Aid, We are the World, Band Aid) in the mid/late years of the 20th century. 

Awareness around issues of representation is on the rise, with campaigns such as Radi-Aid[3] highlighting ‘the worst use of stereotypes’ in charity campaign videos. It is paramount that charities think about how the continual depiction of certain groups as underprivileged and dependent on the benevolence of the West can contribute to sustained misperceptions and the dehumanisation of these groups. But this is by no means an easy topic to approach.

On the issue of celebrity fronted charity video appeals, one Guardian reader quotes from the ‘Ed Sheeran Comic Relief film branded ‘poverty porn’ by aid watchdog’ article and then comments:


DEC is not about general poverty in Africa and the developing world. It is specifically for urgent and large-scale humanitarian crises where rapid action and funding are needed. We need to mobilise the public and the response very quickly.’

And that seems to be the point which is being forgotten. If it works to raise funds quickly in order to help people in the most dire of situations then surely that is not only laudable but morally the right thing to do?

Moralising whilst people starve when we have it within our power to generate funds in order to prevent that suffering is utterly reprehensible. [4]

I disagree that examining issues around representation should be so critically branded ‘moralising’, but the commentator is right in pointing out that celebrity fronted charity video appeals have been successful in raising significant amounts of money quickly in the past. Sport Relief, who did not use celebrities to tell other people’s stories this year[5], raised £17m less than they did two years ago. This could be attributed to the Oxfam scandal[6] which transpired around the same time as Sport Relief and is sure to have lasting effects on the public’s views towards international development causes. However, it could also be linked to the absence of celebrities where the British public are accustomed to seeing them.

Can charities like Comic Relief hope to mobilise the same kind of support without celebrities narrating stories on behalf of those in need in future? Are the British public more reactive towards celebrities’ version of events?

It is difficult to choose between using questionable methods to effectively meet people’s immediate quantifiable material need versus maintaining their dignity in the long term (which cannot be quantified as easily); and it is a shame that the choice seems to be between one or the other.

I’m still working on an answer for how charities should move forward; but based on my personal experience, I believe that charities should think very carefully about how they portray beneficiaries. Seemingly innocent misperceptions contain the potential to become insidious if they remain unchecked. It will be a hard job for charities to do, but I hope this "Show and tell: guide to portraying beneficiaries" may help along the way.

Becca Thomas

[1] ‘Comic Relief chief says the charity will move away from using celebrities to front films’, Andy Ricketts, Third Sector | https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/comic-relief-chief-says-charity-will-move-...

[2] ‘Comic Relief to ditch white saviour stereotype appeals’, KarenMcVeigh, The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/mar/23/comic-relief-...

[4] ‘Ed Sheeran Comic Relief film branded ‘poverty porn’ by aid watchdog’, Karen McVeigh, The Guardian | https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/dec/04/ed-sheeran-co...

[5] ‘Comic Relief chief says the charity will move away from using celebrities to front films’, Andy Ricketts, Third Sector | https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/comic-relief-chief-says-charity-will-move-...

[6] ‘Oxfam: The scandal that kept on running’, Andy Hillier, Third Sector | https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/oxfam-scandal-kept-running/article/1459728


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