Are celebrity ambassadors a double-edged sword?

Actress and former Oxfam ambassador Scarlett Johansson. The celebrity quit the aid agency after the organization called her out for endorsing a soda manufacturer that partially operates out of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Photo by: Bryson K. Jones / U.S. Marine Corps

It’s quite common to see celebrity endorsers helping NGOs and other development organizations raise funds and promote their campaigns, but the latest controversy involving Scarlett Johansson shows how using a well-known personality to further your cause can be a double-edged sword — for both sides.

Last November, the Hollywood actress made a 16-second global appeal for Oxfam’s emergency response to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which three months later was able to raise over 5 million pounds.

However, exactly how instrumental Johansson actually was to the fundraising campaign is unclear — and definitely no one could have predicted it would be her last endorsement for the charity.

A week ago, the Avengers star made the headlines not for her good looks or recent performance in a film but for her decision to part ways with Oxfam after eight years when the organization called her out for endorsing a soda manufacturer that partially operates out of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which the aid group strongly opposes.

Johansson’s departure from Oxfam caused an uproar among the aid community and sparked a debate over whether charities should continue to use celebrities in their campaigns if they run the risk of actresses, singers and sports stars prioritizing their paid endorsements — or even worse, undermining the cause they committed to support.

Despite all this, famous endorsers are still extremely valuable to development organizations, according to Save the Children President and CEO Carolyn Miles.

“Getting celebrity ambassadors take lots of time, energy and effort … so it’s important to get somebody who is willing to give his time, commitment and dedicated to the issue,” she told Devex, explaining that the biggest benefit is getting the media to pay attention. At the Today Show, for instance, they’d prefer a celebrity over someone like her.

A good example: Jennifer Garner

The Johansson/Oxfam row made us recall similar controversies in the past involving celebrity ambassadors and NGOs.

For instance, just a year ago, the LiveStrong Foundation had to distance itself from its founder and top donor Lance Armstrong, after the former U.S. cyclist admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs and was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories. It was a terrible blow for the nonprofit, but also led the organization to realize that it would have to do a much better job of explaining its mission, something much easier when you have a familiar face supporting you.

Sometimes it wasn’t the celebrity, but the NGO that messed up. In 2001, Luciano Pavarotti left U.K.-based charity War Child following allegations of corruption and funds misuse in the construction of a music center for Bosnian children which the late Italian opera singer had helped raised funds for. More recently, Comic Relief suffered a severe backlash from some of its famous supporters after the BBC exposed its awkward relationship with the alcohol, arms and tobacco lobbies.

Miles acknowledged these scandals, but gave Jennifer Garner as an example of the perfect ambassador for Save the Children’s campaigns.

“She didn’t do a lot for [us in] the first couple of years, because she said ‘I’m not gonna go out and do a whole lot of things until I know what im talking about’ — so you know she’s in it for the long-run. Today, she can go without any Save the Children staff with her,” explained the CEO, adding that the actress not only makes their voice heard on Capitol Hill, but everyone there knows Garner and she’s able to get things done.

Miles stressed: “The trick is get a celebrity who can deliver the message.”

Save the Children is currently looking for a global spokesperson for their newborn child survival campaign, but even if there are lots of celebrity mothers, it’s still not easy to get someone to commit.

“There’s lots of famous people who are mothers, but what’s the right mix, what’s the audience you are trying to appeal to, what would we be asking her first to do and say. And then you go after who will say yes; a lot of people say no.”

What do you think? Should aid groups continue to recruit celebrities to endorse their campaigns and raise funds? Please let us know by leaving us a comment below, sending an email to news@devex.com or joining our LinkedIn discussion.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

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