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Celebrity endorsements: legitimate or lazy?

Celebrities have played an increasingly large role in politics since the advent of social media. Particularly with regard to the 2016 American presidential election; much of the media coverage included the opinions of celebrities, with some celebrities tweeting through out the campaign, providing insight into the debates, endorsing candidates, sharing opinions and even making appearances at political rallies.

One of the first and most Edinburgh-relevant examples were tweets by local J.K. Rowling responding to fans and comparing former Republican Candidate, now President-Elect Donald Trump, and Voldemort. When Trump made comments about dis-allowing Muslims into the U.S., J.K. Rowling shared an article referring to those comments on twitter with the message, “How horrible. Voldemort was nowhere near as bad.” She continued to criticise him throughout his campaign, and faced increasing criticism both on the basis of her intruding in the business of American politics and of her abusing the influence she has on young voters to get out a political message.

The question of whether or not celebrity endorsements are a helpful political tool or an abuse of power is an important one to consider as celebrity involvements become more and more normal. However, it is important to remember that this is not an entirely new phenomenon. As early as 1928 when baseball legend Babe Ruth refused to pose in a picture with President Herbert Hoover, celebrities have been making their opinions on politics known.

One perspective on celebrity endorsement of candidates is that these endorsements are no more political than the consistently popular celebrity endorsements of companies or products. Especially when companies are bound up in important political issues such as tobacco or child labor, a celebrity appearance in support of a product could be much more influential and more politically effective than a celebrity expressing approval or disapproval of a candidate.

While this argument may make celebrity endorsements seem inevitable, others argue that the abuse of power in politics is uniquely bad for children. Celebrities do have an enormous amount of influence, and arguably even a responsibility as role models to take into account as they do things that they will likely be imitated by younger fans. It is a reasonable extension of that argument to assume that when things get too controversial, public figures should leave it up to parents to do the adjudicating for their children.
On the other hand, some celebrities argue that this particular election is too important for them to retain their silence. In a comedy show in Florida, Amy Schumer vented frustration and inveighed the character of Trump, citing his racism and claiming that it was “just too important” to be left unsaid. For other celebrities who have Muslim, Latino or black fans, or who are themselves in a group that have been featured in speculative warnings about Trump, it may very well feel like an ethical imperative to speak out.

Another thing to consider is that in many ways, Trump had his political roots as a celebrity himself, gaining fame on his reality TV show, The Apprentice. This could very well represent the blurring of lines between celebrity and politician. Daniel Radcliffe, who commented on the Trump campaign in September, did so with an opinion formed of him from the time they met when Radcliffe was just 11. Radcliffe recalled in an interview with Seth Meyers that when he was 11, about to appear on live TV for the first time, Trump responded to his nervousness by telling him, “you just tell them you met Mr. Trump.” Radcliffe then mused that he could not imagine the amount of confidence required to feel “interesting enough to be everyone’s story.” He expanded in a separate interview with Sky Cinema about the comments J.K. Rowling had made, speculating that “he [Trump] feels like more of an opportunist. I don’t know how much of this stuff he says he really believes.” While some might feel that these personal anecdotes provide important insight into the candidate’s character, others would argue that they are irrelevant.

The question of comments that candidates have made in interpersonal interactions has been a prominent one in this campaign, with Clinton’s emails retaining media attention for the whole 18-month-long election period and leaked or resurfaced recordings of Trump’s circulating frequently. In some ways, the discrepancy between her campaign’s focus on Trump’s statements made in private conversations as relayed by celebrities and her own deferral from focus on the private statements she had made to other politicians in emails betrayed a potential contradiction in her stance.

She was not the only candidate to have a mixed stance on celebrities. On Late Night with Seth Meyers, clip after clip of Donald Trump condemning and even mocking Hillary’s use of celebrities were played, while, according to Meyers, “he himself campaigned with Ted Nugent, who has repeatedly made racist and anti-Semitic statements, said things about Hillary we can’t even repeat here, and who did this onstage at a Trump rally just last night.” A clip was then played of Nugent grabbing his crotch area and exclaiming, “I’ve got your blue state right here!”

Among his condemnations of the celebrity support garnered by Clinton, Trump emphasized that he did not need celebrities to get people to attend his events. According to Rush Limbaugh on his show, “Even when she [Clinton] does draw a crowd there isn’t any real energy to it, and she has to have other people in order to draw that crowd. She needs Beyoncé, she needs Jay Z, she needs limited clothing on Beyoncé.”

It is not only Trump’s opponents who noted a lack of enthusiasm in Clinton’s support base. Glaswegian political author Gary Hassan explained at a Blackwell’s promotional event for his new book, Scotland the Bold, that he attended both a Trump and a Clinton rally in the United States and described a very real energy discrepancy. He explained that Trump “touched a raw nerve in America,” tapping into a more complex constituency than we often credit him for, relaying a simple message in a complex world in a way that gets through to voters. This may explain why Clinton utilised so many more celebrities than Trump.

While Trump did have some celebrity endorsements, according to Forbes, none of the 100 highest paid celebrities (a good marker of a celebrity’s fame) endorsed him. Across the aisle, Clinton received numerous endorsements from authors, actors, musicians and athletes. According to Politifact, Clinton had about 800 celebrities endorsing her.

In an interview, Hassan helped to shed light on this discrepancy, remarking on how liberal Hollywood is. However, some have a more sinister explanation. Those who fear the political dynasty of Clinton may also recognize that it is not only the liberal message, but the family connections and wealthy ties that give Clinton access to celebrities. On the other side of the class reading of this issue, some could argue that celebrity involvement makes politics more accessible, widening the electorate by bringing attention to those who are less politically involved, a statistic that often coincides with class in the U.S.

Whichever side persuades you, most agree that celebrity endorsements played little part in the outcome of the election. Beyoncé in her limited clothing, magical J.K. Rowling and their whole brigade of stars were not enough to win Clinton the presidency. After months of speaking out against Trump, popular young adult author John Green neglected the “standing together” solidarity that so many celebrities have been assuming, tweeting only, “you reap what you sow.”

Image Credit: slgckgc @flickr.com

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