Celebrities are always part of the show in the US presidential election. This is by no means a new trend. Historians have traced the role of celebrities in politics back to the 1920 election, when Warren Harding was endorsed by film stars including Lillian Russell.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy was endorsed by Rat Pack members Sammy Davis junior and Dean Martin. More recently, Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, will.i.am, Brad Pitt and Samuel L. Jackson supported Barack Obama. Actor Clint Eastwood, however, endorsed Republicans John McCain in 2008 and Donald Trump this time around.
The 2016 election is no different. So how much of a difference, if any, do high-profile endorsements make? And to which demographics?
Who’s endorsing who?
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been endorsed by an army of celebrity supporters.
Some of Clinton’s high-profile endorsers include LeBron James, Amy Schumer, Katy Perry, Meryl Streep, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Khloe Kardashian, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Britney Spears, John Legend, Richard Gere, Salma Hayek, Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce and Snoop Dogg.
In contrast, some of Trump’s supporters include Azealia Banks, Sarah Palin, Kirstie Alley, Tom Brady, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Rodman, Kid Rock, Mike Tyson, Donnie Wahlberg, Gary Busey, Hulk Hogan, Tim Allen and Chuck Norris.
If we simply look at the Twitter power behind some of the celebrities listed above, Clinton’s camp – with DeGeneres, Spears, James, Lopez and Beyonce – has a combined 195.6 million followers, compared to Trump’s camp – Sheen, Tyson, Palin, Hogan and Alley – with a combined 21 million followers.
Advertisements featuring celebrities are a popular marketing strategy. In fact, one in five ads globally features a celebrity. Undoubtedly, endorsements are big business.
Marketers happily spend millions on celebrity endorsers as they are able to leverage “secondary brand associations” – that is, people transfer their opinions and feelings about a celebrity to the brand.
In a cluttered world where myriad messages fight for the attention of time-starved consumers, celebrity endorsers serve as arbiters of public opinion. And so, marketing organisations rely on symbolic and emotional features to generate “sociopsychological associations”. Some celebrities are seen to be so aspirational that even a glimpse of them in an ad conveys positive meaning, like athletes Cristiano Ronaldo and Roger Federer.
It’s important to understand the traits a celebrity, also referred to as a source, should have in order to transfer positive meaning to a brand. These are broken down into three categories:
source attractiveness (physique, intellect, athleticism, lifestyle);
source credibility (expertise, trustworthiness); and
meaning transfer (compatibility between brand and celebrity).
Quite often, celebrities use their high profile to encourage people, world organisations and politicians to support their cause, like singer Bono’s One campaign against poverty. Actors Jack Black and Neil Patrick Harris encouraged Californians to vote against the California Marriage Protection Act.
Not-for-profit and world organisations are aware of the power of celebrities and create connections in order to garner publicity, awareness and donations. This includes the United Nations and Angelina Jolie, and DeGeneres and the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Celebrity endorsements in politics makes sense
We know celebrities grab and hold consumer attention. They also improve ad recall. People are more likely to think positively about a product because they are familiar with the celebrity.
However, expertise is an important element when wanting to influence consumers. Credibility is another crucial factor that tells us not all celebrities are equal. Those considered to be more credible have a higher influence on people’s opinions and decisions.
Celebrities with prior political activism, like Martin Sheen and George Clooney, are more likely to have a stronger influence. Interestingly, people consider celebrities to be more credible and trustworthy than politicians.
A negative comment by a credible endorser such as Oprah Winfrey can be as damaging as a positive one. For example, Winfrey stopped eating burgers during the 1996 “mad cow” spread – this resulted in a 10% drop in cattle futures the next day.
Effectiveness and audience
Research has found that young adults are more likely to listen to family and friends, rather than celebrities, as a source of political information.
At the same time, young people believe celebrities have an effect on the way people think – more than politicians, scientists or academics. Outside of age, ethnicity and gender are also known to affect celebrity endorsement influence.
For instance, African-American and Caucasian-American voters are more likely to rely on family and friends. However, Asian-American, Polynesian and Hispanic voters are more likely to trust politicians or interest groups. Also, men consider celebrities to have a greater influence than women do, regardless of cultural background.
Celebrities are able to motivate young people to seek further information and to take part. However, this is less true of first-time voters. Those who are less politically savvy or poorly informed are also more likely to vote for a political party endorsed by a celebrity.
What’s interesting is that most celebrities tend to align themselves with politically uncontroversial issues and tend to steer towards liberal perspectives – for example, George Clooney and Not On Our Watch, a campaign for improving human rights.
Trump’s camp includes controversial celebrities who have previously been involved in controversial branding endorsements, like Charlie Sheen and underwear brand Hanes.
Trump was also a celebrity prior to becoming a candidate. People’s experience of his public persona through his roles on TV have over time instilled a specific meaning. That meaning is now transferred to his political campaign.
So what’s the final verdict?
With the right celebrity endorsements, political campaigns can do quite well.
Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama in 2008 was found to increase overall voter participation and number of contributions received by Obama, and an estimated overall 1 million additional votes.
All it takes is trustworthiness, credibility, and a lot of followers.