In the world of advocacy, celebrity activism is a unique tool with mixed results. On the one hand, celebrities are able to bring great attention to causes that would otherwise be buried, if not flat out forgotten. At the same time, it’s hard to quantify the impact of just awareness building. For instance, is celebrity activism really making an impact on world poverty, or even childhood poverty, despite numerous celebrity-led efforts? Given that 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day, it would seem the answer would be no. So, can celebrities ever make a difference?
The truth is that the steps that make celebrity activism successful are not that different from other successful advocacy efforts: locally based community organizing, specifically targeted decision-makers, and leveraging communication tools. Mark Ruffalo shows how these tools can lead to successful celebrity activism in his fight against fracking. For one, Ruffalo lives upstate in a community that would be directly impacted by fracking. The fight against fracking, especially in New York, is led by a strong coalition of local organizations that have been joined by celebrities, rather than the other way around. This provides legitimacy of the celebrity claim within the impacted community. It also shows a vested interest that goes beyond just improving one’s image.
Second, Ruffalo and his efforts have clearly targeted Governor Andrew Cuomo, as Cuomo hedges on whether to extend the state’s ban on fracking. Specifically targeting an appropriate decision-maker provides a direct “ask” for individuals. It is a much stronger advocacy tool to say, “Ask Governor Cuomo to extend the ban on fracking” than to say something more generic or unclear about how fracking is bad for communities. Knowing who to target is a smart advocacy tool that also shows a depth of knowledge and commitment beyond only appearing at press conferences and media events.
Finally, Ruffalo leverages his celebrity to generate a greater media footprint for the cause. He organized a rally and concert against fracking, writes opinion pieces, and brings attention to the cause in outlets that may not otherwise cover it, like MTV. He has also championed and brought attention to a plan that would make New York State fossil fuel free by 2030. Ruffalo continually shows his commitment and understanding of the issues goes beyond sound bites and PR. These actions are a significant step above just taking to Twitter or other social media.
In the end, celebrities will always get more attention for their advocacy efforts than dedicated advocates. But, we shouldn’t discourage celebrity advocacy. Instead, we should encourage responsible advocacy in the model of Mark Ruffalo.