Ambassadors and Celebrity Advocacy

gdw_sendmyfriend2010_picThis week Sightsavers’ SocialMedia Manager and young ambassadors, aged 14, are in Uganda, with the Global Campaign for Education UK (GCE UK). They are part of the GCE UK’s ‘Send My Friend to School Campaign’. They are investigating what is stopping young people, especially those who are blind or visually impaired, from getting an education.  The young girls were chosen as they are “strong communicators with a deep and sincere passion for the campaign to ensure all children in the world receive an education” (Williams 2014).

We in the media team, back here in the UK, have been following their tweets and photos and reading the case studies that they are collecting on their fact finding mission. Over a team lunch in Café Rouge (a nice treat, we normally eat at our desks in the office!) we discussed potential contacts we could speak with in order to get the message out loud and clear about inclusive education. In the meeting we considered asking Radio 4’s Woman’s hour if they’d like to interview them. Especially since International Women’s Day is next week and these two enthusiastic young women will be incredibly influential to their peers upon their return. My colleague met with a labour MP yesterday to tell him about the campaign and he was very interested in meeting the young ambassadors. Another colleague may pitch it to Lorraine Kelly who is one of the INGO’s celebrity ambassadors. Perhaps she would like to interview them on her breakfast ITV show?

I have been reading some interesting critiques of Celebrity Advocacy. As I have been researching potential ambassadors, the concerns and issues around celebrity advocacy have become important to be aware of. I’m reading newspapers everyday but finding it difficult to dedicate time to read academic journals. However, in spare moments over the last three weeks I have focussed on a Chouliaraki (2012) journal article called “The Theatricality of Humanitarianism: A critique of celebrity Advocacy“.


The writer, Chouliaraki, analyses two “moments” of humanitarianism: Audrey Hepburn as UNICEF Ambassador from 1988-1993 and Angelina Jolie as UNHCR Ambassador from 2001-2012. Chouliaraki identifies significant differences in their ‘authentification strategies’. By this she means the way each hollywood stars claim authenticity when actually they are both just a name to be associated with the United Nation’s message. Chouliaraki contends the humanitarian organisation employs the corporate strategy of branding. She labels Hepburn’s authentification strategy as ‘de-celebritized’ and ‘unconditionally altruistic’ while performing as a ‘dispassionate witness’. In contrast, Jolie appears as a ‘Hyper-celebrity’ and shows ‘utilitarian altruism’ and has emerged as an extremely ‘passionate’ witness. Their aspirational discourse influences public disposition toward humanitarian causes (Chouliaraki 2012).

63156795-actress-andBy using celebrities as ambassadors, Chouliaraki concludes that suffering becomes spectacularised and those suffering are denied their own voices. She contends contemporary advocacy priorities the celebrity’s emotions and the publics identification with him or her. This undermines the work to improve political, social and economic issues and encourages narcissism. She agrees with Riina Yrjola and Costas Douzinas, two other academics interested in celebrity advocacy, arguing that it glamorises neocolonialism…

The neocolonial argument situates celebrity humanitarianism within an orientalist discourse of the “white man’s [sic] burden” : images of beautiful people in stark contrast to the African poor perpetuate historical  relationships of power between Western missionaries and indigenous locals – the latter, now as much as then , unable to represent themselves but subject to the civilizing project of the former. 21. In so doing , the celebrity seeks to conceal a scandalous contradiction: by appearing to care for the “wretched of the earth” whilst enjoying the privilege of rare wealth, he or she glosses over the ongoing complicity of the West in a global system of injustice that reproduces the dependence of the developing world through acts of charity.22. (Chouliariaki, 2012, page 4).

Chouliaraki’s key question is: “how do we reclaim justice as the new imperative of action on human suffering” rather than pity? (2012:17)

While her article is extremely interesting, Chouliaraki analyses two hollywood super stars who are quite different to the celebrities that I have been researching for becoming an ambassador at an INGO which is small in comparison to the United Nations. Also, as this INGO works to increase opportunities for those with disabilities, they often work with british paralympic athletes or people who are disabled themselves. Are they privileged? Well yes, relatively as they probably don’t live in poverty, but this is a contentious and ethical debate that deserves respect and more careful thought.

I will continue to research this issue and read arguments both for and against celebrities getting involved with international development. I am going to dedicate Wednesdays to research, and my line manager is supportive of this.


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