Media Monitoring and Celebrity Ambassadors

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Each morning, from 9am – 10am, the entire press team distribute the huge pile of newly delivered newspapers and, while drinking a cup of tea, we quickly flick through them looking for headlines and stories that would be of interest to our colleagues in the organisation. We also research international news using a database called Factiva. The team have set up alerts such as ‘Post 2015 Millennium Development Goals’ and ‘inclusive education’ and so any news with those themes will be listed for us to read through. There is often a lot and it’s difficult to get through it all within an hour. We then compile the daily news briefing which we email out to everyone who wants it with a short summary of each story and a hyperlink so they can read it in full.

After having done this for three months on work placement I will hopefully be much better at summarising academic readings when I go back to University. I think I will feel more confident discussing what I’ve read in seminars if I have summarised the key points and written them down in the same way I’m doing now on my work placement.

It is a real treat to be able to read many different styles of print media every day. The same story is often printed in The Daily Mail and The Guardian and The Financial Times and its so interesting to see how the same event is portrayed for different audiences. A story we’ve been monitoring over the past three weeks is Scarlett Johansson‘s, resignation from her role as Oxfam’s Global Ambassador. This media coverage has been in a range of newspapers and has created quite a stir online, with many comments from the general public and development practitioners.

On Oxfam’s website it says this about the movie star,

“Scarlett’s global popularity has helped Oxfam raise awareness around the world about issues that create poverty and world leaders’ responsibility to act. Her fund-raising activities and private donations have provided a phenomenal boost to Oxfam’s work with poor people”(Oxfam 2014).

Scarlett-soda streamHowever, in early January Scarlett signed a deal with a company called Soda Stream. On February 2nd their commercial was due to air for the first time to the vast global audience watching the US Superbowl. She was of course the star of this commercial and said she was particularly drawn to the Soda Stream product for ethical reasons, it eliminates the need for plastic soda bottles she argues, which contaminate the environment (Mackey. 2014. New York Times).

So why the controversy? Well, Soda Stream is an Israeli company that makes products in a settlement built on West Bank territory Israel has occupied since 1967. This has everything to do with Palestine-Israeli conflict politics. Johansson, like many movie stars, might not have understood the real implications of saying yes to being the face of a company that makes soda. Activists, seeking to end Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, put pressure on Oxfam for over a week. Interestingly Goldberg, a journalist from the Jewish Daily Forward, said The SodaStream factory “does exploit the commercial benefits of its location, essentially profiting from occupation,” through tax breaks, cheap rent and the lax enforcement of labor laws that protect workers from long hours and low pay.  

In late January Oxfam released a statement on its website.

 “While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador. Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support. Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. “

This statement and this issue has made development practitioners question the role of celebrity ambassadors. Scarlett of course defended her decision to work with Soda Stream. Saying “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights” (Johansson. Blog – Huffington Post). But this has sparked a large amount of criticism.

A Palestinian employee of Soda Stream said “We Palestinian workers in this factory always feel like we are enslaved” (Electronic Intifada). And Derfner from 927mag.com says, “settler violence, lately characterised mainly by masked young men roaming the West Bank and attacking Palestinian farmers with stones, clubs or rifles and burning their olive groves, their fields, and occasionally their schools, mosques and homes, is a unique feature of the occupation”. Activists campaign against this Israeli settler violence and the occupation of the west bank with boycotts, divestment and sanctions, known as B.D.S. This is modelled on the 1980s movement that helped undermine international acquiescence to apartheid in South Africa (Mackey. 2014.New York Times). 

Ironically a recent article says the movement to boycott Israeli goods linked to settlements has been boosted by “Scarlett syndrome” after this high-profile controversy (Black & Sherwood. The Guardian). Other reporters defend Scarlett’s decision. The Mail on Sunday reported that she “hankers after wealth” as a consequence her childhood of poverty. They say this is probably behind her decision to back SodaStream in the ‘Oxfam row’. The drinks company is paying her £243,000 to appear in Super Bowl ad, they write.

‘It’s nice to have money. I didn’t grow up with it so it’s nice to have it,’ [Scarlett Johansson] told The Mail on Sunday. ‘I’m not at all frugal and I don’t save – to my business manager’s dismay. I like to be generous. I can’t stand people who are tight with their money, it drives me crazy. ‘It’s different if you’re scrimping and saving because you need to, to save up for something. But I cannot stand cheapness.’ (Craig & Donnelly. Mail on Sunday).

oxfam_johanssonOther reporters have questioned why celebrities are getting involved in international development at all. This is particularly interesting for me because as part of my role as Media and Communications assistant at an NGO, I support the celebrity liaison officer. “Once upon a time, celebrities offered support to charities; now they are global ambassadors, an absurdly inflated title which implies an expertise that they surely do not have. It is a political or diplomatic role given to someone more used to negotiating a red carpet. If we the public expect them to do a good job, to understand the complexities of taking a stance, perhaps we are the dumb ones” (Jones. The Independent). In the Observer, Bennet says:

 “Courtesy of work by Professor Dan Brockington and others, there was reason, long before Johansson made her choice, for charities to re-examine the effort that goes into recruiting humanitarian ambassadors or, as they often then become, loyal corporate mascots”. The modern celebrity liaison practitioner is trained to match names to causes, to resist inundation by desperate Kardashians and Bransons, to watch out for Jimmy Saviles or Ian Watkins (children’s ambassador for Kidney Wales) and to anticipate more pedestrian misunderstandings that can still turn well-meaning talent into a branding black hole. (Bennet 2014)

Oxfam launched their Global Ambassador Program in 2007 with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a couple of other celebrities as well as Miss Johansson. Their reason? Claire Lewis, Oxfam’s International Artist Liaison Manager said this…

 “Our Ambassadors are listened to across the world, and their support helps to give a voice to people who would not otherwise be heard. Through their work, Oxfam’s campaigning messages can reach a much wider audience and have huge impact on decision makers. We are delighted to have so many credible and passionate Ambassadors from across the globe (Oxfam 2014)

It will be interesting to research this further. To look more at Professor Dan Brockington’s publications and understand why international development involves celebrities. He will publish a new book in April entitled Celebrity Advocacy and Development and has a blog with other researchers on the same subject here.

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