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Usher speaks at an event held by his New Look foundation
Usher, shown speaking in 2019 at an event hosted by the nonprofit he started, and two other celebrities shot five episodes of the canceled series. Paras Griffin/Getty Images

‘The Activist’ reality TV show sparked furor, but treating causes as commodities with help from celebrities happens all the time

CBS quickly backpedaled after an announcement about “The Activist,” a new reality TV series it planned to broadcast, drew widespread backlash.

The show was going to pit teams made up of activists and celebrities against one another. They would be competing to see who could raise the most awareness for a cause connected to health, education or the environment. Winning teams were to advance to the G20 Summit in Rome to get world leaders on board.

Critics panned the show without seeing any footage. Many said the premise embodied performative activism, devalued grassroots activism and was cringeworthy.

On Sept. 15, 2021, less than a week after announcing the five-part series, the network and its two co-producers admitted that the concept was flawed. They said they had canceled it and would turn the show into a documentary.

It isn’t clear yet what role the celebrity hosts – Usher, who founded a nonprofit that supports under-resourced teens in 1999; Priyanka Chopra, a UNICEF ambassador; and Julianne Hough, who has helped raise awareness about endometriosis – will play in the documentary.

Chopra and Hough immediately felt the need to apologize to their fans and voice their concerns. Usher has not spoken out.

That a major broadcaster would expect a show linking celebrities and activism to garner viewers and that the concept would implode didn’t surprise us. We research what happens when celebrities get involved in activism in tandem with corporations. Quite often we find that while celebrities may be well-intentioned in their efforts, the machinery behind their activism may undermine the causes it purports to support.

Enticing the public

Starbucks, TOMS shoes and other companies often try to turn compassion for suffering strangers, from Congolese farmers to Peruvian kids, into a commodity. Celebrities are brought in as spokespeople to widen the appeal of corporate responsibility efforts and sell more products.

To be sure, we find that some celebrities, including Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie, are more serious about leveraging their influence burnished through their professions. However, we often see that many celebrities don’t invest enough time and energy to gain the credibility and expertise required to make a difference.

Celebrities have engaged in this high-profile advocacy for decades. Movie stars like Audrey Hepburn were performing public roles in the mid-20th century as good Samaritans. Because of their fame, celebrities can entice regular people, along with politicians, wealthy philanthropists and corporations, to embrace a cause.

Fans eagerly lap up news about celebrity accomplishments as well as about their private lives and charitable inclinations. Because familiar faces can shine the spotlight on their pet causes, humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations often tap celebrities to draw attention to advocacy campaigns.

For example, the United Nations enlists hundreds of celebrities as messengers of peace, goodwill ambassadors and advocates to communicate with the public. The ENOUGH Project promotes NBA star Luol Deng, the model Iman and other famous people as what it calls “celebrity upstanders” to raise awareness of crises in Africa and support efforts to quell conflicts there.

Likewise, corporations get celebrities to promote cause-related product lines, such as (Red), a project which has worked with Elton John, Scarlett Johansson and Gisele Bündchen to raise money, initially to fight HIV/AIDS and now also to deal with COVID-19 in African countries.

The Enough Project relies on star power from celebrities like George Clooney.

The risks of celebrity activism

Whether the goal is slowing climate change, fighting bigotry or improving access to health care, when celebrities engage in activism, excitement over the celebrities can overwhelm the activism.

The Save Darfur campaign, which at its height brought together more than 190 religious, political and human rights organizations, is a good example.

The campaign eventually collapsed. And yet the people of Darfur today are still in crisis.

Despite research showing that celebrities catch but fail to hold our attention, humanitarian agencies and nonprofits like UNICEF and Oxfam International compete to secure celebrity ambassadors.

When we interviewed aid workers in the field, we learned that visits to crisis zones and refugee camps by celebrities can be extremely disruptive to humanitarian operations. Without the stage management of celebrity ambassadors and control over their media appearances, it’s hard to avoid gaffes that risk becoming debacles. One example: actress Elizabeth McGovern mixed up Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Darfur when she went to Sierra Leone with World Vision as its “ambassador.”

Those mistakes that occur and the hassles that arise when famous people show up can defeat the purpose of celebrity engagement. But since these celebrities often come with corporate sponsors – meaning cash – aid workers and local people put up with them.

Celebrity activism as an industry

As demand for star power surges, the machinery behind celebrity activism has become more corporate and professional, we explain in our new book, “Batman Saves the Congo.”

Today, most major charitable organizations have full-time celebrity liaisons to manage dozens of celebrity supporters. There are philanthropic consultants, like the Global Philanthropy Group, which help celebrity clients find causes to represent.

We have tracked dozens of celebrities who have their own nonprofits, suggesting long-term commitments. But these organizations are sometimes founded on shaky premises that ignore local needs and can benefit the celebrity more than the cause.

Consider Ben Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative. We looked at how, in partnership with Starbucks, it claimed to transform the coffee sector in Congo to advance peace and development. Unfortunately, the initiative had no expertise in coffee production and little knowledge of rural development.

Despite professing to serve up a “cup of hope,” research later showed that this collaboration made hardly any difference for the farmers it was supposed to help.

Also, it was Affleck’s search for meaning in his own life, aided by highly paid consultants, that led him to start this organization, not the Congolese.

Ben Affleck explains why he chose to ‘shine a spotlight’ on the crises facing the Congolese people in Africa.

Celebrities and consumer activism

Many celebrity-led organizations include corporate partnerships in the form of cause-related marketing lines. Now would-be activists are encouraged to “shop to support” Damon’s by buying a Stella Artois Limited Edition chalice.

Or, to sustain Christy Turlington Burns’ Every Mother Counts, you can “shop gifts that make a difference” and purchase a Stephanie Freid-Perenchio Orange Rose Necklace.

For celebrities to promote splurging as activism risks distorting how causes can be addressed more successfully through collective action, grassroots engagement and direct donations.

Matt Damon co-founded a group that strives to increase access to clean water.

A boon for the rich and famous

Without any accountability, we have seen these efforts generally do little to help the causes or beneficiaries they are championing.

After studying this pattern for years, we want to know: What does celebrity activism accomplish?

It makes an impact, but not in the ways you might expect. We’ve observed that getting celebrities to back a cause may bring greater visibility for the celebrity and profits for corporate partners.

Celebrity activism can soften or rehabilitate a celebrity’s reputation, as in the case of Madonna and Jolie.

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It can also lead to higher album sales or more downloads. That’s what happened for many performers, including British rock band Pink Floyd and the pop singer Robbie Williams after the Live 8 concerts. The point of those widely televised concerts, held at venues across the world in 2005, was to increase aid to low-income countries.

Even as a canceled TV show, “The Activist,” is destined to spotlight the unaccountable power stars possess, far more than the causes than it’s supposed to be about.

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