Understanding Celebrity Humanitarianism and Celebrity Advocacy
Lisa Ann Richey and Dan Brockington
The Product (RED) initiative was launched by Bono the Irish rock star at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2006. Product RED is ‘a brand created to raise awareness and money for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by teaming up with iconic brands to produce RED-branded products’ (see http://www.joinred.com/). With the engagement of iconic brands, such as American Express, Apple, Emporio Armani, Gap, and Starbucks, consumers can help HIV/AIDS patients in Africa. From an Emporio Armani RED watch to a RED iPod TM and from (Starbucks)RED whole bean coffee to a (RED)GAP sundress, a percentage of the profits from the sale of all RED co-branded products is contributed by the ‘iconic’ partners directly to The Global Fund. In essence, aid celebrities are asking consumers to “do good” by buying iconic brands to help “distant others” —Africans affected by AIDS. This is very different from “helping Africa” by buying products actually made by Africans, in Africa, or by choosing products that claim to have been made under better social, labour and environmental conditions of production. We write about this in our book called Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World. [insert hyperlink]
Brand Aid is the combined meaning of “aid to brands” and “brands that provide aid.” It is aid to brands, a mechanism that helps selling products, profiling a brand in the media, and building brand value. It is also aid financing that is provided through branding. Aid celebrities transport the modalities of the celebrity into the realm of international development. They embody a manufactured consensus, let simple moral truths substitute for rational debate, and thus manage the affect of those who would solve the world’s problems. There is a “felt need” for grounding the impulse to “do good”.
We make a distinction in our analysis of RED between the celebrities who are brought in as a supporting cast for various products, performances, and the brand itself and the “aid celebrities” who are fundamental to the social contract on which RED is founded. Famous faces abound in all aspects of the RED campaign; celebrity models like Gisele Bündchen and Christy Turlington, actresses like Penélope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson, singers like Joss Stone, and artists like Damien Hirst engage in highly publicized activities in support of RED and its products. The use of celebrities to sell products is of course nothing new, but RED moves beyond mere celebrity endorsement by relying on the appeal of aid celebrities for the brand’s credibility.
In Product RED, Paul Farmer provides the ethical guarantee that AIDS is an important problem that can be solved in poor countries, Jeffrey Sachs provides the efficiency guarantee that the RED brand and the Global Fund are effective means for solving this problem, and Bono provides the attention guarantee that exposure and access will come from linking aid celebrities to other famous celebrities to insure the cool quotient of the initiative.
Humanitarians of Tinder and Celebritisation
Tinder is a mobile phone application for ‘friends, dates, relationships, and everything in between,’ according to the company website. While some consider the quick turn-around time of swiping through photographs of potential hook-ups to represent a particularly vulgar side of transactional interaction for sex, there is also a performance of humanitarianism that deserves scrutiny for the representations that it presents and the engagement of the public in North-South relations. Cody Clarke, a writer and filmmaker, documents screenshots of photographs from the closed network of Tinder to publicly ’out’ users of the site who post photographs showing themselves in some ’do-gooding’ relationship that appears to take place in the South. Clarke explained in an online interview with the author: ‘I started it just as a place to post all the ones I was noticing on Tinder. I started out just posting them on my personal Facebook page for friends to see, and they were so popular that I figured I might as well do a Tumblr. I'd never used Tumblr much so I had no idea how fast things can circulate there, and only a couple days after I started it, it started taking off really fast.’ An early critique of the Humanitarians of Tinder appeared in Nerve, where the title—’Meet the Humanitarians of Tinder, Saving the world, One Dating Profile at a Time’— is a spoiler for the article that follows. [i] ’Everyone wants to present themselves well on their dating profiles. It's possible to go too far, though, and make a forced attempt to brand oneself as a younger, hotter Mother Theresa.’
Yet, we should ask ourselves, could the photographs posted on the ‘Humanitarians of Tinder’ blogsite have really surprised anyone? After the widespread dissemination of the video Kony2012, and the debates on multiple fora about the Invisible Children and its photogenic founder Jason Russell, the term ‘white savior industrial complex’ was coined by Teju Cole.[ii] In his seven-part response to this video, using twitter, Cole mapped out the terrain of the post-colonial angst that undergirds North-South relations, of which humanitarianism is a part. Fundamentally, these tweets link sentimentality with the continual refusal to acknowledge structural inequalities that make humanitarianism possible. This sentimentality is produced by the images of the ‘white savior,’ who is then linked to militarism, corporatization, and celebrification of contemporary society.
Tinder humanitarianism draws on all the visual motifs of fundraising by international humanitarian organizations, and nearly duplicates pose by pose many of the images we have of celebrity humanitarians (Richey 2016) but it actually has no link whatsoever with institutionalized humanitarianism. There are no organizations to be called into accountability for the representations of Others, no annual reports where the ‘bad’ side of the representation can be weighed against how much funding it might have contributed to raising for genuine humanitarian interventions.
[i] http://www.nerve.com/entertainment/meet-the-humanitarians-of-tinder-saving-the-world-one-dating-profile-at-a-time, Liam Mathews 24 Feb. 2014, last accessed 14 May 2016.
[ii] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/ , last accessed 14 May 2016.