When Leonardo Dicaprio finally won his first Academy Award earlier this year on his fifth nomination, most viewers expected the actor to speak about the trials and tribulations he encountered to earn this accolade. Instead, he used most of his acceptance speech to draw attention to a matter that is arguably of more pressing importance than his career: Climate change.
His impassioned speech about making an active change to prevent further damage to the environment was significant for the heartfelt emotion he poured into his words. That DiCaprio, a long-term environmentalist, would use his moment of glory to speak about a matter other than himself seemed authentic too, especially because many know him as not just a Hollywood actor, but also a devoted activist.
While celebrities have often lent their voices to champion various causes, what sets this generation of famous crusaders apart is their unprecedented capability to communicate directly with their fans via social media and the Internet. As a result, their messages are perceived to be much more personal, compelling and most of all, credible.
For example, if you are among the 7.7 million followers that DiCaprio has on his Instagram, you would know that almost all of his 290 posts thus far are related to the environment and conservation. Beyond merely reposting images, he has even made personal trips to far-flung destinations, such as the Indonesian rainforests, and speaks at conferences around the world to draw awareness to this cause, which in turn lends authority to his advocacy.
While many celebrities use social media for vainglorious reasons (Kardashian selfies anyone?), a growing group of them have been particularly successful in driving positive change through this medium. For example, Harry Potter actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson’s various media interviews and speeches for the HeForShe campaign are shared on her Facebook page (and have collectively been watched and shared millions of times). American model Karlie Kloss, who has 4.8 million followers on Instagram, uses her account to publicise the scholarship she offers to teens and young women who wish to study coding.
Actress Sophia Bush, who uses Twitter and Instagram to promote charitable causes alongside shout-outs for her latest television appearances, told The Huffington Post: “It’s been very cool in the last couple of years to see how people who are lovely and genuine, and have good intentions for the planet really get the attention they deserve. And they are drawing in these fan bases of people who also believe that the real rock stars are the ones that are changing and saving the world.”
However, while many stars try to save the world one tweet at a time, recent research has shown that celebrity promotion of charities is “largely ineffective”. A 2014 study, carried out by Professor Daniel Brockington from The University of Manchester, Professor Spencer Henson from University of Sussex, and Dr Martin Scott from University of East Anglia, found that while awareness of popular charities were high, about 66 percent of those surveyed found it difficult to link celebrities with the NGOs and charities these famous people supported. “The evidence suggests, therefore, that the ability of celebrity advocacy to reach people is limited,” the researchers wrote.
Still, celebrity humanitarianism is not completely in vain, particularly when the stars are able to demonstrate a genuine connection to their cause. “There were still a relatively large number of occasions in which seemingly authentic celebrities did appear to generate a distinct sense of proximity and agency vis-à-vis distant suffering,” writes Scott in his paper.
In other words, the celebrities who show a real motivation for their good works, as opposed to merely paying lip service, are the ones who are most likely to inspire positive change. For example, celebrity crusaders who have fronted long-term and highly publicised activist campaigns include U2 frontman Bono for eradicating Aids and poverty in Africa; Angelina Jolie, who has worked tirelessly with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for years to advocate on refugee and displacement matters; and Michael J Fox, who raises funds and awareness for Parkinson’s disease research. Their names are not only synonymous with these causes but they have successfully drawn public attention and awareness to these issues.
It helps too if the celebrities walk the talk and have personal experiences that connect them to their charitable work. Supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, who is more commonly known these days as an outspoken advocate for maternal health, first found out about such issues when she suffered a near-fatal complication during her own pregnancy. This led her to produce her documentary, No Woman, No Cry, and establish non-profit organisation Every Mother Counts charity in 2010.
To keep the focus on the charity, Turlington has even managed to channel her personal fitness routine towards the cause. She says: “I ran as a child and rediscovered my love for it when I started training for my first marathon in 2011. I was motivated to run to raise awareness and funds for Every Mother Counts and educate the public about one of the biggest barriers women face when bringing life into the world. Every mile I run, whether it’s to train or race, the women I have met over the years are with me. I have found ways to integrate running into my day and because my main work is Every Mother Counts, that’s how I justify taking the time to train.”
Another model, Karlie Kloss, who incidentally cites Turlington as one of her greatest inspirations, has also parlayed her fame and personal interests towards a philanthropic effort. In her case, the self-described nerd is enrolled at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, a small interdisciplinary college in New York University and takes computer programming classes at the Flatiron School in New York City. Her experiences prompted her to set up her Kode With Karlie scholarship to offer young women the chance to enroll in a two-week pre-college coding class. With only 18 percent of Computer Science degrees in the US awarded to women, Kloss sees this as a way to make this field more accessible to ambitious young women.
She tells Elle UK: “With the ability to code, you can problem-solve in a really powerful way. Every industry is being transformed by technology and you either adapt or get left behind. So I think why coding has grown to be so powerful, especially for young women, is that it gives you the understanding and the skills to be a part of the change and a part of writing the future.”
Despite the publicity, it can be challenging to measure the success of celebrity advocacy. For example, there was controversy over DiCaprio’s Instagram post, featuring him in a photograph with an orangutan in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem. He could be banned from further entry into the country if his comments are judged as “incitement” by the immigration department. Bono’s One charity has also come under media scrutiny for giving out just one percent of the funds it has raised to the needy, although representatives have tried to clarify that the charity’s main aim is to spread awareness, as opposed to running on the ground efforts.
However, when done right, it is very gratifying and motivating for superstars and their supporters to see change happening. To date, Turlington’s Every Mother Counts charity has awarded US$2.6 million to mother’s health programmes in places such as Indonesia, Haiti and Uganda. On a smaller scale, Kloss awarded 21 scholarships in 2015 and expanded this fourfold to 80 this year.
Ultimately, the biggest success of cause celebs would still be each star’s ability to draw eyeballs towards the causes they champion. There are, after all, few people in the world who are as well placed as these superstars to use their influence to inspire legions of others into action. And if this consistent stream of well-meaning information is a way to break through the inane chatter and self-gratifying selfies that are all too common in social media today, then we say, follow these cause celebs away.