Celeb appeal

Sue Wheat on the pleasures and pitfalls of celebrity support.

Celeb appeal spread The thing is – it has to be sexy.” So said an editor on London’s Evening Standard about stories on development issues. The problem is, of course, that poverty, Third World debt, agriculture and healthcare needs, are not “sexy”. Only major crises seem to move the issues off the economics or foreign pages of the broadsheets to more mainstream media.

So if the papers want “sexy” the answer, inevitably, is to bring on “sexy” people – celebrities. Suddenly the media come running. Jubilee 2000, who have campaigned on Third World debt for the last two years, and many more agencies before them for about two decades, had their campaign completely turned around when they got the support of both Muhammad Ali and Bono this February to raise the Drop the Debt campaign at the music industry’s Brit Awards.

“For a global campaign, you need global faces,” says Jamie Drummond, Head of Special Initiatives for Jubilee 2000. “And Bono and Muhammad Ali were perfect because they are universally known and because of their own personal interests in overseas and civil rights issues.”

All of the large aid agencies, and many smaller ones, now have regular celebrity supporters. Save the Children this year recruited a full-time Celebrity Co-ordinator, Wendy Bailey (a former “showbiz” BBC radio producer) to bring in the big names.

SCF’s Save the Children from Violence campaign, launched this April, consequently got support from a wide range of celebrities – from Dame Judi Dench to Coronation Street stars and Sir Cliff Richard to the Spice Girls. “The essence of using celebrities is careful and strategic planning,” says Bailey. “But you have to bear in mind they’re not the end – they’re the means to an end.”

Fitting the celebrity to the issue is also vital, says Christian Aid’s Sarah Stewart. “The danger is if the celebrity becomes the story, rather than the issues. Full-briefing is essential. And if they go on a trip and meet inspiring people, they often become impassioned and it works.”

Richard GereFelicity Finch, an actor for the Archers who went to Rwanda with Christian Aid to launch an agricultural radio soap opera there, came back and couldn’t stop talking about her experience, says Stewart. The result? Coverage in most of the broadsheets, tabloids and on BBC national and World Service radio. And Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, seems to have found new purpose in her life since becoming a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women and speaking to the world’s media about reproductive health, population and breast cancer. “Everybody knows who I am and if I can save just one person’s life I’ll be so happy,” she told a packed press conference this year.

Using celebrities can do more than just draw the cameras however. “Bono has a particular standing with the public because he sells lots of records. But he is also a friend of Bill Clinton. He is part of a social group made up of a very famous elite and if the issues can be raised in that group it is invaluable. It’s a kind of informal lobbying,”says Jammie Drummond.

But development issues are complex and some celebrities get embroiled in the development politics without even realising. Martin Clunes from Men Behaving Badly, went to Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania for the Born to be Wild BBC documentary. He was impressed by a vast electric fence constructed by The George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust to “keep the animals in”. Clips of the programme were then used in another BBC documentary, Counterblast, presented by land rights campaigner Charles Lane, showing the other side of the story – that the fence was also there to keep the local Masaii out.

The faces of the poverty stricken Masaii, 5000 of whom had been evicted from their ancestral land and their houses burnt down because of wildlife conservation policies, was a sharp contrast to the wide-eyed, well-meaning enthusiasm of Clunes for saving elephants. Ironically, Clunes is also one of the thousands of celebrities involved in Comic Relief which funds Survival International and African Initiatives, two organisations working with the Maasai on land rights issues.

“What you have to ask is whether celebrities actually weaken the issue you are trying to raise. Do they actually know enough about it?” points out Mike Sansom, Co-ordinator of African Initiatives. “If a high-profile person puts themselves into the situation, they must be able to defend it, and these issues are often very complex.”

For this reason African Initiatives don’t have celebrity patrons but people well-known and respected in their field – George Monbiot, a writer and campaigner on land rights, and Professor David Brokensha, a development anthropologist.

But of course, celebrities get media coverage in a way the committed professionals don’t. The trade off is that development issues can become trivialised and dumbed down. Is this a risk agencies should worry about?

“It depends on whether you want to keep development issues only in the papers and programmes seen by people who are interested in development issues,” says Jamie Drummond.

“The fact is we reached one billion people with our Drop the Debt message on the night of the Brit Awards because of Muhammad Ali and Bono. We couldn’t have done that by any other means.”

So if the papers want “sexy” the answer, inevitably, is to bring on “sexy” people – celebrities.