The expert view: is celebrity endorsement a waste of time for charities?

In the wake of claims by a group of academics that celebrity endorsement often fails to benefit the charities involved, PRWeek decided to put the issue to a panel of industry experts.

Unicef: one of many charities to work with celebrities (Credit: David Alexanian)
Unicef: one of many charities to work with celebrities (Credit: David Alexanian)

The claims, orginally published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, pointed to such collaborations as being "generally ineffective".  So what did the panel think? 

Mark Borkowski

Founder, Borkowski PR

"I wasn’t surprised by the findings of this research. We are already suffering from celebrity fatigue, and the truth is that most celebrities, bar perhaps the Hollywood A-list, don’t have the commitment or access to make a real difference. A figurehead is no longer enough. So charities must rethink and learn to use the modern media tools to engage and craft compelling campaigns that attract the emotion of the crowd. Those that understand how to create a social connection – on a small scale or a large one – that leads to the highest emotional reward will be the ones to conquer moving forward."

John Grounds

Comms consultant and former RSPCA deputy CEO
"Celebrities can play a very important and unique role for charities but, like any other element of a marketing and comms strategy, it is all about what is right for the brand and what will help the charity to achieve its objectives. Celebrity endorsement for its own sake has little value. Celebrity supporters should be relevant and the right fit for both the cause and audience. I wonder if the research took account of the specific audiences to whom specific celebrities were chosen to appeal? Charities that get it right often find they can engage with new audiences and give weight to their messages and stories that other marketing simply cannot achieve. However, celebrities are supporters, not ‘collateral’, and need to be supported and nurtured so that all parties get maximum value from the relationship."
Richard Dawes

Co-Founder, Dawbell PR

"Celebrity endorsements that are not well thought out don't work. But when something creative is introduced, has a very strong message and a recognisable face, a talking point is generated. A campaign will live and die by its ability to make you stop in your tracks and ask questions. There are lots of charities using the same template with celebrity campaigns and most feel like they get lost in the information melee. Charities cannot expect to engage the general public by simply putting a picture of a famous face up or have them visit a site; they need to create a water-cooler moment that carries their message."

Peter Gilheany

Director, Forster Communications

"I think it is too simplistic to state that because recall among consumers is low, the use of celebrities has little impact for charity campaigns, as their involvement and impact is not as simple or as clear cut as that suggests. There are two main reasons for using celebrities to promote a good cause: engaging the audience and, more importantly, gaining the interest of the media. Celebrities often open the door so the media cover a story in the first place, irrespective of whether people who go on to consume the piece have any recall of that celeb. Having said that, not all celebs are created equal. To get recall a high visibility of celebs is needed, and relevance to audience and cause. Charities need to encourage celebrities to say or do something interesting or creative."

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