On World AIDS Day 2011, television viewers could turn on CNN and watch Bono thank profusely the U.S. for their commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic. In a New York Times editorial published that day, Bono wrote “The United States performed the greatest act of heroism since it jumped into World War II. When the history books are written, they will show that millions of people owe their lives to the Yankee tax dollar, to just a fraction of an aid budget that is itself less than 1 percent of the federal budget.”1 Bono praised the efforts of President George W. Bush and encouraged readers “To get this far and not plant your flag would be one of the greatest accidental evils of this recession.”2
With a goal of ending the AIDs epidemic worldwide, Bono has been using his star power and charm to encourage world leaders and every-day citizens to step up and make this issue a priority. Working with the non-profit and private sectors, Bono has started two different initiatives to focus on ending AIDs and addressing other critical diseases in Africa.
One is an advocacy and campaigning organization to fight preventable disease, especially in Africa, by raising public awareness and pressuring political leaders to make and keep responsible policies. One’s achievements (including those of its predecessor organization DATA) include, but are not limited to:
- Helping secure $107 billion in debt relief for poor countries for a 10-year period
- Pressuring the G8 in 2005 to fight poverty and disease in Africa
- Working with U.S. government officials to create the Pepfar AIDs program and winning funding from across the G8 for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria
- Convincing the George W. Bush administration to start the multi-billion dollar Millennium Challenge Account for targeted development efforts worldwide
- Campaigned for the passage of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to increase African exports to the U.S.3
Bono and other celebrities also founded Red to boost private sector contributions and complement public sector initiatives. Red is a branded business initiative in which participating companies give a portion of the profits from red-labeled products to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. The Global Fund uses 100 percent of those contributions to fight HIV/AIDs and other diseases in Africa. More than $175 million has been generated thus far, helping 7.5 million people fight AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis. Partners include American Express (UK only), Apple, Dell, Gap, Hallmark (U.S. only), Nike, Starbucks and various other corporate partners.4
Overview of Celebrity Activism
Bono is considered one of the most successful celebrity activists ever. His success has been built upon an existing legacy of celebrity activism, which has morphed and changed over time.
Historically, celebrities only lent their name and talents to organizations. Audrey Hepburn, for example, supported many children’s causes and the United Nations.5 In the 1920’s, Al Jolson led entertainers to support Republican candidates. From the 1920’s to the 1960s, celebrities took supporting roles, waving from the stage, rather than giving a speech. This changed in 1968, when Paul Newman actively supported Eugene McCarthy in the primary challenge against Lyndon B. Johnson. Since then, celebrities have become a main part of political campaigns.6
Ronald Brownstein, editor of the National Journal, describes two trends driving contemporary celebrity activism. The first is a shift away from direct electoral campaigning toward direct philanthropic actions. The second shift is a shift away from domestic concerns towards international issues.7
Sean Penn epitomizes the first trend. He used his influence not only to decry issues, such as a Washington Post advertisement against the War in Iraq, but to get personally involved, such as becoming camp manager for the International Organization of Migration at Petionville, Haiti.8 Others, who reflect this trend, include Michael J. Fox, who has successfully lobbied funds for Parkinson’s research. His foundation has raised more than $137 million to find a cure for Parkinson’s.9
The second trend is readily apparent through Bono’s support of AIDs in Africa and poverty reduction in Africa. Similarly, George Clooney is an avid spokesperson on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur;10 while Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have visited Syria and other countries on behalf of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.11 These “A-list” actors join many others in promoting various causes around the world.
One of the key differences between past and present activism is the use of technology. Today’s celebrities use Twitter to raise money and awareness of pet causes. Lady Gaga used social media to mobilize her supporters to call elected officials to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Lance Armstrong tweeted to 2.3 million followers to pledge to humanitarian organizations in the aftermath of Haiti earthquake.12
British actor Stephen Fry, who frequently promotes causes and charities, has 2.45 million followers on Twitter. His tweets have more subscribers than the printed copies of The Times, the Telegraph, the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Independent (all major British newspapers) combined.13 In the United Kingdom, 75 percent of the 30 largest charities (excluding care and housing trusts) have a full-time employee in charge of working with celebrities.14
Critics of Celebrity Activism
While there are many positive achievements by celebrity activists, many criticize this phenomenon. Some are skeptical of celebrities who use activism to further their careers. Social activism is considered a modern form of currency in Hollywood, as it serves a major role in forming the public persona of the actor. Hollywood PR specialists note that all stars should have a cause. Some are more deeply involved than others, but for some it is just a business move.15 Celebrities often turn to activism as a way to stay in the news, despite no new movies or music releases.16
There is a whole industry based on celebrity activism. The Global Philanthropy Group manages charitable giving and opportunities, sifting through requests and making recommendations for their clients, such as Angelina Jolie. The Giving Back Fund provides similar services for star athletes. Corporate sponsors support fundraising galas attended by celebrities. Corporations are also conscious of their brands and want to be associated with giving to celebrity-supported causes. For example, Alicia Key’s Keep A Child Alive initiative to give antiretroviral medicines to AIDs victims has 78 corporate sponsors.17
Some are critical of the way in which celebrities are expressing their activism. In a Washington Post article, William Easterly, a professor of economics at NYU, compared and contrasted John Lennon’s and Bono’s celebrity activism. Easterly describes Lennon as a dissident and Bono as a policy wonk. He writes “There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident, but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk.”18
Easterly prefers celebrities to act as crusaders against those in power, rather than work with political leaders. He claims dissidents have a legitimate role in democracy, while celebrity wonks contribute to intellectual conformity, an impediment to real change. Dissidents do not claim expertise in a subject matter and instead draw attention to moral wrongs of current policies. While wonks, such as Bono, refrain from criticizing repressive regimes.19
Naomi Klein, author of the book No Logo, further criticizes the “Bono-ization of Activism.” Klein describes the new style of anti-poverty campaigning of Western celebrities working hand-in-hand with governments as a new form of noblesse oblige, in which the rich and powerful give back. She believes that the nation-state is being replaced by corporate rule. Existing power structures are reinforced, while inequalities that arise from these structures are not being addressed. Similar to Easterly, Klein feels that Bono’s type of celebrity activism does not produce radical change. She too prefers a more confrontational and engaged form of activism, rather than a consumer culture model,20 such as Red.
Some question the knowledge level of celebrity activists who serve as spokespersons for complex issues. While Clooney and Bono are considered very knowledgeable on African poverty, HIV/AIDs and human rights issues, not all celebrities are as educated. Jenny McCarthy, for example, is crusading against vaccinations, despite long-standing research by the medical community. Russell Crowe has spoken against male circumcision, despite its known benefit in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDs.21
On a societal level, the U.S. public (and the public in other Western countries) has increasingly become skeptical of politicians, while still trusting celebrities, as long they remain scandal-free. Celebrities are viewed as independents that are not bound by political constraints, allowing them the possibility to bring fresh ideas and novel solutions to the table. In this new system, star power is weighed more heavily than political power. When this happens civil discourse is often diluted. Politics risks becoming mere entertainment! In fact the line between the two is blurring, with Schwarzenegger’s governorship and the presence of former politicians on TV shows, such as Fred Thompson.22 Celebrities appear weekly on Capitol Hill to speak on behalf of their causes.
Furthermore, media reporters are focused on telling stories that bring high readership and viewers. Celebrity input increases readership, but often at the expense of opinions and perspectives by experts in the field. Political discourse itself becomes shallower as viewers get used to short sound-bites delivered by celebrities to convey complex situations. The quality of information decreases and voters are then much more limited in their ability to make informed decisions. Democracy suffers.
Fear of decreased information in the mainstream media due to celebrity spokespersons is a real problem. This problem will not go away as long as the public values celebrity opinions more than the opinions of experts and politicians. Fortunately, those opinions are readily available on the Internet and in articles and presentations given at think tanks and NGOs.
Ultimately, whether doing so for their own gains or from the bottom of their hearts, celebrity activists are playing a crucial role, especially in the West in raising awareness and increasing giving to important causes around the world. Increased celebrity attention brings new enthusiasm to solve world problems. Celebrities have achieved so much success in their activism endeavors because people listen to them. Politicians want to get photographed with them and they want the accolades (and votes) that accompany a successful initiative associated with celebrity support. This phenomena is not going away, and thank goodness there are stars out there such as Bono, providing a true model of how an educated, celebrity activist can change the world. One can make a difference.
1 Bono. “A Decade of Progress on AIDS.” The New York Times. November 30, 2011.
3 “Real Progress Is Being Made.” One.
4 (Red) FAQs.
5 Mansky, Rachel. “Shining the Spotlight. Celebrities promote public awareness of their pet causes.” Celeb Lilfe.
6 Brownstein, Ronald. “Celebrities as Political Activists.” National Journal. June 3, 2010.
8 “Top Five Celebrity Activists: Lady Gaga and a Palin, Too.” Politics Daily. December 28, 2010.
9 Mansky, Rachel. “Shining the Spotlight. Celebrities promote public awareness of their pet causes.” Celeb Lilfe.
10 Chaudhuri, Saabira. “Hollywood’s Most Influential Celebrity Activists.” Forbes. November 22, 2006.
11 Scott, David Clark. “Why are Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Syria?” Christian Science Monitor. October 4, 2009.
12 Maltbie, Tyler. “Port-au-Prince, Haiti: From George Clooney to Lance Armstrong, celebrities tap star power to urge giving.” Christian Science Monitor. January 15, 2010.
13 Benedictus, Leo. “From Stephen Fry to Hugh Grant: The rise of the celebrity activist.” The Guardian. April 15, 2011.
14 “Has celebrity activism gone too far?” BBC. February 2011.
15 Goodale, Gloria. “Gulf oil spill, Haiti, Darfur: Hollywood stars rush to do their bit.” Christian Science Monitor. June 10, 2010.
16 West, Darrell. “Angelina, Mia, and Bono: Celebrities and International Development.”
17 Traub, James. “THE MONEY ISSUE; The Celebrity Solution.” The New York Times. March 9, 2008.
18 Easterly, William. “John Lennon vs. Bono: The death of the celebrity activist.” Washington Post. December 10, 2010.
20 “The Bono-ization of Activism.” October 12, 2007.
22 West, Darrell. “Angelina, Mia, and Bono: Celebrities and International Development.”
*Pictures http://www.flickr.com/photos/u2005/536885018/ (bono)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/erprofe/4724823792/ (sean penn)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeephead/5068173632/ (john lennon)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/4840490704/ (Angelina jolie)