With trust in this government at an all time low and anti-vaxxer sentiment running wild on social media, the NHS plans to enlist “sensible” celebrities and “influencers” with big social media followings to help persuade people to have a COVID vaccine.
While there haven’t been any celebrities confirmed as yet, England footballer Marcus Rashford has been touted as a possible spokesperson after his work earlier in the year campaigning to end child hunger.
The idea to use celebrities to endorse the COVID-19 vaccine might sound like an innovative method to communicate with the public. But the use of celebrities to promote a government agenda is something that has been done for years. And it has proven to be highly effective.
The government has previously used celebrity endorsement on a wide variety of campaigns – from school dinners to knife crime to lowering cocaine use – with the help of footballers David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand, chef Jamie Oliver and former Blur bassist Alex James, to name just a few.
The celebrity message
Celebrity endorsement and influence has been a long-term communications strategy for successive governments. It works because celebrity endorsement can cut through the noise and make people consider options they may have outright rejected. And in many cases a friendly face or voice, with an encouraging and persuasive message can tip the balance of a decision.
Politicians know it can be the source of the message, rather than the message itself, that’s often the hurdle to behavioural change and action. And celebrity endorsement is just one of the tactics applied in a wider portfolio of political communication strategies.
The reason why celebrity endorsement works to promote a brand or a political initiative is simple. People look at celebrities as an aspirational self. They want to be like them: successful, confident, beautiful. Subconsciously this makes a person not only feel favourably towards the celebrity but also keen to behave like them, too.
That said, research from 2018, that analysed how Britons feel about the use of celebrity endorsement to promote political agendas, found that people weren’t so keen. The majority of participants in the study felt celebrity endorsements wouldn’t make a difference to their decision making. Though most people questioned did think that celebrities might have an impact on other peoeple’s decisions.
This comes as no surprise, as people tend to reject the idea that a celebrity can influence their judgement. But as years of research on the effect of celebrity endorsements show, it works – even if people are not always aware of the effect.
It’s important to also consider if celebrity endorsement, particularly when contracted by the government and not when personally volunteering to promote a cause, is a dangerous practice?
Indeed, the government already has low credibility and this could be further eroded by the fact that they need someone else to send their messages. It could also be seen as the government admitting that it’s not able to get through to the public or do the job that politicians and their task-forces are paid for.
If the celebrity is not volunteering but is paid by the government to communicate with the public, there’s also the risk that the government may lose credibility in the eyes of the public. And picking the wrong celebrity that doesn’t give the public a sense of “expertise” about what they’re asked to promote is another big risk.
On the other hand, when there’s health or major societal issues at stake, the use of a third party to deliver an important message can help to depoliticise the request and send the idea that no matter who you vote for, this is important and you should follow what’s being asked.
This is not to say that celebrities should not have political opinions or shouldn’t express them. It’s more related to the fact that social issues should be a priority for society, and politicians are there and paid to represent society and solve these issues.
The government is not a brand that needs promotion. It dosn’t need to sell itself to look good in the eyes of the public. Or at least it shouldn’t have to.
Besides, politicians arguably should already have all the tools (and the science) needed to promote vaccine uptake. They shouldn’t need to turn to celebrities to get people to pay attention.