Since the birth of celebrity—which, history tells us, goes back to the scandal-prone Roman gods—famous people have been used to endorse things. From Lily Lantry and Pear Soap more than a century ago, to Bill Cosby and Jell-O Pudding, to William Shatner and Priceline, marketers believe the public cares about what celebrities care about—and that translates into product sales.
What’s been interesting, and at times disturbing, to watch is the growing trend of celebrity endorsements for political candidates. Of course, American stars have as much right to support an office-seeker as anyone else. And their involvement certainly generates discussion.
Whether it’s constructive discussion, or whether celebrity endorsement has real meaning … well, those things are up for debate.
The latest—certain to sway undecided voters, um, never—comes from celebrity train wreck Lindsay Lohan, who has endorsed presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Perhaps slightly more helpful to Romney was a thumbs-up from actress Stacey Dash, who starred in the 1995 film Clueless. It wasn’t a good experience for Dash, though, as her GOP cheer earned her swift condemnation from Tinsel Town. (I wonder if Scott “Happy Days” Baio got as much grief when he supported Romney?)
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is scoring more A-list endorsers, including the incredibly influential Oprah Winfrey, whose blessing is good for a million votes, according to one study. George Clooney’s fundraising dinner last May generated $15 million for the President’s re-election war chest. And the geek vote was secured by none other than Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill, who compared Obama to Star Wars wise man Obi-Wan Kenobi.
From a public relations standpoint, celebrity endorsements are meaningful when the stars clearly articulate their reasoning. People want to feel connected to their favorite celebs, so they find value in hearing a star explain his or her thoughts in an honest and personal way.
Unfortunately, a lot of these endorsements are more about association, or even personal publicity, than about heartfelt support. We all know Michael Moore—who is an entertainer, not a journalist—will endorse a Republican candidate just as soon as the validity of porcine flight is scientifically proven. His blustering does little to generate real, thoughtful discussion, and a lot to get his mug on TV. Likewise, porn star Jenna Jameson revealing (sorry) she’s a Romney fan doesn’t engender civil discourse. The advent of social media has made it even easier for obscure “whatever-happened-to?” personalities to get a moment back in the spotlight.
Celebrity endorsements won’t be going away, so it rests with the general public to weigh such cheerleading with care. For political PR, a great many headaches can be avoided if celebrities who rally around a candidate or cause are prepared to be open, honest and specific about their support.