Politics and celebrity endorsement. Does it work? – George Clooney and Barack Obama’s campaign
Not everyone knows that George Clooney is not only an actor, but also an activist supporting many political and social campaigns. According to The Washington Post, he is one of the most politically and socially active celebrities (2012). Recently, Clooney was involved in two major causes. The first cause was related to the situation in Sudan. In March, Clooney was arrested outside Sudan’s embassy, protesting for the Sudanese hunger crisis (The Washington Post, 2012). His involvement in the issue goes back to the year 2006, when Clooney went to Sudan to report on how the area had been ravaged by war and how the international community was struggling to set up refugee camps to help those in need. After he came back, he went to Oprah Winfrey show to discuss his documentary movie. Shortly before he was arrested, he expressed his support for President Obama and announced that he would launch a fundraising dinner for Obama, in his house in May 2012. The event, that was attended by many celebrities including Robert Downey and Jr. and Billy Crystal, brought in almost $15 million, more than most fundraising events of about the same size, in which the typical haul is between $1 million and $4 million, according to the Daily Beast (The Huffington Post, 2012). In addition, Clooney made an appearance at several Obama’s campaign events. President Obama, who knows Clooney since the time when he was still a senator, while asked about his relation with Clooney, emphasised what a good person and a friend George Clooney is. The President also added: “He [Clooney] seems to occupy a constant state of grace, and uses his extraordinary talents on behalf of something truly important.” (The Huffington Post, 2012). However, it is important to ask two important questions: how has Clooney’s involvement really helped Obama win the elections and who is getting more benefits from the publicity around this, Clooney or Obama?
First of all, it is not an unusual thing for a celebrity to support charities and political causes. Many of them use the opportunity to present their positive image while creating publicity for a cause and for themselves. With that in mind, it might be difficult to judge if a celebrity genuinely cares about charities he or she supports. “The public presentation of self is always a staged activity, in which the human actor presents a ‘front’ or ‘face’ to others while keeping a significant portion of the self in reserve.” (Rojek, 2001, p. 11). George Clooney and Barack Obama’s situation is similar. While looking at Clooney’s involvement in political issues we can see that it goes a bit further than most celebrities are usually willing to do when they support a cause with their own interest in mind. He does not only donate money and create publicity, which, when the cause is honourable and a celebrity shows some enthusiasm, in most cases brings positive outcomes. Clooney went to Sudan, made a documentary film, made sure it brought attention to the situation and protested knowing that he might be arrested for that. In the case of Obama’s campaign he was one of the most involved celebrities. This kind of behaviour might suggest that Clooney genuinely cares about these causes and is willing to actively support them. At the same time, he works in the industry where publicity and reputation are two very important factors, so we cannot forget that while fighting for what he believes in, he can at the same time think about his own benefit. There is probably no better publicity for any celebrity than to be a guest in the Oprah Winfrey’s show and talk about the hard work towards those people who need it. It can also be seen as a great honour to be called a friend and a ‘wonderful person’ by the President himself. Whether George Clooney believes in what he is doing, he is getting a lot of good publicity for himself and that can only be good for his career.
Secondly, it is very difficult to prove what real impact celebrity’ endorsements have on the results of elections – there are a few academic studies documenting a clear link between endorsement and voter behavior (Garthwaite and Moore, 2008). The Democratic party has always had a big support from the most famous celebrities and while looking at previous election campaigns we can notice that Clooney’s support in 2012 campaign is not exceptional or decisive in any way. That means that political preferences and choices of celebrities are not a surprise for most of their fans from the beginning. Thus, if their opinions are known long before the elections, there is a small chance that a significant part of electorate would change their political choices due to their favourite celebrity’s opinion, which they were familiar with before. Also, fans and electors know that celebrities have no actual power over politics and policies, so they cannot influence or guarantee the fulfillment of the promises made during the campaign. “Their [celebrities’] relative lack of policy and political expertise limits their desire and ability to get candidates to change their policy positions, as well as their ability to convey policy information to voters.” (Garthwaite and Moore, 2008, p.11).
On the other hand, endorsements of candidates by the local media, celebrities or other political figures can have a direct or indirect effect on election outcomes (Garthwaite and Moore, 2008). It is true that most people do not have a possibility to meet election candidates in person. However, it is important for them to know what kind of people candidates are, not only what their views on certain political issues are. Celebrities on the other hand actually have that chance: “Voters are uncertain about candidate quality (…) Voters who are fans view celebrities as credible “insiders” with access to better information about candidates” (Garthwaite and Moore, 2008, p.13). Also, in our culture, celebrities are often seen as role models. They are successful, famous and rich, so people believe that their decisions are good and worth following.
What we can observe today is that the line between the world of entertainment and politics is blurring. Celebrities have supported their candidates in the past, but it has never been so widely publicised. This shift is not a result of the growing celebrities’ power over electors but it is related to the fact that politics became a form of entertainment and celebrities fit it perfectly to attract attention. Differences between leaders and stars are blurred and electoral politics became a form of entertainment (Cashmore, 2005). According to Darrell West, director of governance studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington, there used to be a pretty sharp distinction between Hollywood and Washington but that line has almost completely disappeared: “You have celebrities who raise money and endorse candidates. You have politicians who appear on entertainment shows. And so, there’s a lot of interchange between Hollywood and national politics.” (Moraski, 2012).
Celebrities play important part in our culture. Their carefully staged images are presented in a certain way by the media to attract audiences. Nonetheless, they are still role models for many people and they often use it to bring attention to important social and political causes. George Clooney is an example of a celebrity that achieved and maintained his status mostly thanks to his own talent and hard work, and is now focusing on supporting political issues. His recent involvement in Barack Obama’s campaign has brought a lot of much needed publicity to both of them. However, it is difficult to say what actual impact Clooney’s endorsement had on the result of the elections. Most probably, it did not made any significant changes, since Clooney’s and other celebrities’ support for the Democrats was rather expected. Nevertheless, the expectations of audiences are changing and we even want politics to be more entertaining. That is why celebrities are often invited to come on to the political stage, even if it is just to raise money and attract attention.