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The Celebrity Effect


January 6, 2015
By Leslie Ballentine

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I’m not much of a Hollywood follower.  I don’t read entertainment magazines, or see a whole lot of Hollywood movies. So when a celebrity endorses or opposes something I generally draw a blank of who this person is and then question why I should care what they think.  Nonetheless, it does really annoy me when we see celebrities pushing a cause they contradict in their real life.

Celebrities are just like many of us. We have our causes. It may be a disease, or third world hunger or civil rights, or agriculture.  It may be political, environmental, animal rights … the list goes on.  But, people who take a celebrity’s say-so in forming their own opinions always makes me nervous.  I am much more likely to accept the opinion of an unknown expert than a publicity-seeking celebrity.

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A poll in the Calgary Sun recently asked “Are you more likely to support a celebrity endorsed charity?”

At 80.21 per cent, the vast majority of the 1,870 respondents answered “No, I support what I want.”  Granted, this is coming from “sensible westerners,” and I wonder what Vancouverites or Torontonians would answer. But even in Calgary, celebrities have influence. According to this unscientific poll, nearly 20 per cent responded that they are or could be influenced by celebrity endorsements, 6.9 per cent answered “of course,” 10.96 per cent answered “depends on the celebrity,” while a further two per cent answered “probably.”

So I find it startling that some celebrities, at least, can have such influence with the public, particularly when they talk the talk but don’t walk the talk.

This past summer Tycoon Sir Richard Branson announced that he has renounced beef to help save the planet. “Meat consumption today contributes to global warming and environmental degradation,” he told media at the time.  According to one accounting, Branson’s airline Virgin Atlantic operates 38 aircraft, creating a carbon footprint of 5.9 million tonnes of the greenhouse gas CO2 each year. Branson also plans to launch Virgin Galactic spacecraft, whose emissions will be the equivalent of a return trip by jet from London to Los Angeles for each passenger. A quarter-pounder, on the other hand, is said to cause 0.0015 tonnes of CO2 emissions, according to even the most exaggerated estimates by anti-meat proponents. Why he chose to make this pronouncement is beyond me. I doubt his beef consumption ever came close to his airline emissions.

And of course there is a growing list of celebrities who publically announce they have gone vegetarian or even vegan for ethical reasons and then are caught by the paparazzi scarfing chicken wings in the back of a dark bar.

Canada is not immune to the celebrity effect.

Canadian Pamela Anderson is one of a stable of celebrity spokespeople for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who espouse the PETA mantra: “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way.”  She has been caught with her pants down —figuratively and literally — numerous times, but my favourite was in 2007 when the UGG® fanatic was informed that those boots she seemed to live in were made of sheepskin. To her credit she has stopped wearing them, claiming, as only Pammy can, that she wasn’t aware what they were made of.  But she and many other Hollywood types can’t claim ignorance when it comes to denouncing medical research that uses animals — research that has saved or at least prolonged their lives — or in Anderson’s case enhanced her bra size. Yet it seems many people seem to trust her judgment and her opinions.  

I consider CBC television star David Suzuki a celebrity rather than an environmental scientist.  He is certainly well known and revered for espousing the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save the planet. Yet he is one of many such celebrities who actually contribute to these emissions by flying solo in private jets rather than taking an empty seat on a commercial flight. Environmental scientists say flying by private jet is the most carbon intensive way to move humans next to space travel (take note Mr. Branson). Suzuki was the centre of media criticism several years go for his jet-setting ways and his insistence on driving to his film shoots in a private limo rather than share a ride with the film crew. Yet his following continues to grow.

Here’s the Point: Rightly or wrongly, celebrities can and do influence public opinion. Just as we do with marketing our products, agriculture needs to figure out how to do the same.