For decades, pop culture icons, by virtue of their public visibility, morph into an eclectic breed of ambassadors and social advocates. While some celebrities (e.g., Michael Vick, Lindsay Lohan) have cringe-worthy public personas, others use their clout to perform valuable public services, adopting causes that otherwise would go overlooked. There is no limit to the effect these endorsements can have on a cause. Witness Katie Couric’s on-air colonoscopy and the subsequent surge in colon cancer awareness.
While advocacy is generally a worthwhile endeavor, not all causes are created equal. The causes that benefit the most from a celebrity spokesperson are those with few, if any, other promotional platforms. Lady Gaga’s mega-stardom has yielded previously unfathomable publicity for victims of anti-gay discrimination.
Gaga has stopped at nothing to get out the message that these attacks must end, using her Twitter account (with more followers than President Obama), concerts, and media appearances to raise awareness. You may remember her asking President Obama if he was listening to her at a 2009 Gay Rights Rally in D.C. Or her appearance on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” urging viewers to call Harry Reid’s Senate Office to garner support for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Certainly not one to be silenced, Gaga is becoming an important spokesperson for the civil rights cause of our generation.
Some stars have even created an alternate identity in support of their respective cause. Sean Penn left acting behind to help rebuild Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. After the initial fundraising blitz, the international community seemed to turn a blind-eye toward the crisis that left 230,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless. Not Penn. The Academy-Award winning actor founded JP/HRO, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving Haitians in the long-term aftermath of the quake. The organization has certainly lived up to its mission, providing vital medical services to 8,000 patients on a monthly basis, removing 200,000 cubic meters of rubble and distributing 100 metric tons of cholera supplies.
Perhaps the stars generating the most public awareness are the ones with deep personal connections to their causes. Michael J. Fox’s public battle with Parkinson’s disease has generated $275 million for research. Moreover, his brave decision to testify before Congress without medication has turned Parkinson’s into a household name. Nonetheless, Parkinson’s remains a disease shrouded in mystery, as demonstrated by the recent remarks of Ohio Governor, John Kasich, who insensitively imitated a Parkinson’s patient earlier this week. Clearly, Fox still has some work to do.
So how important are these celebrity endorsements? Consider the realm of autoimmune diseases, a group of ailments that afflicts between 5-8% of the U.S. population and includes lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Despite their prevalence, none of these conditions have a celebrity spokesperson, and those afflicted suffer for it. In a recent study, only 38% of respondents said they were “somewhat” or “very familiar” with lupus, while only 77% had even heard of the disease. Consider the progress that could have been made had Michelle Obama, whose father suffered from multiple sclerosis, adopted autoimmune diseases as her cause. Because these endorsements can often make a tremendous difference, the public should continue to pressure celebrities to advocate for those on the margins of society.
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