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Does the Politically Charged Oscar Speech Accomplish Anything?

Oscar winners may want to avoid preaching about politics.Research suggests celebrity influence on public opinion is modest at best.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Regarding this year’s Academy Awards, there’s one bet that is absolutely safe to place: Many of the winners and presenters — not to mention host Jimmy Kimmel — will be making political statements. But it’s not clear whether their jokes and entreaties will change any minds, or inspire any activism. Does anyone really care what celebrities think?

While research has yet to provide a definitive answer to that question, it suggests their influence is limited at best. When it comes to making political decisions, it appears that citizens — even impressionable young adults who will be stepping into the voting booth for the first time — are influenced far more by friends and family than by famous faces.

“Celebrity endorsements work best when the celebrity is well-known and well-liked by the potential voter,” Bowling Green State University political scientist David Jackson, author of Entertainment and Politics: The Influence of Pop Culture on Young Adult Political Socialization, wrote last year during the final weeks of the presidential campaign.

While that may seem obvious, it’s actually a trickier equation than it might appear: Many celebrities are beloved by their fans, while others view them with indifference or even hostility.

Does anyone really care what celebrities think?

In October of 2015, Jackson and his colleague Melissa Miller surveyed 804 Ohioans who were likely to vote in the 2016 general election. They named a series of politically active celebrities, and asked them whether their endorsement would make the voter more or less likely to support their preferred candidate.

The humbling results: “None of the celebrities showed a net positive effect, and four of them showed double-digit net negative effects.” For the record, those would be Eva Longoria, Lena Dunham, Ted Nugent, and Beyonce.

On the other hand, Jackson’s earlier research suggests the famous do influence citizens who are just coming of age. In a 2008 study, he found “young people are significantly more likely to agree with a position when it is endorsed by a celebrity.”

And in a 2005 paper, he found that, among young Canadians, “celebrity endorsements make unpopular statements more palatable, while increasing the level of agreement with already popular opinions.”

A 2014 study by political scientist Valerie O’Regan reached more mixed results. After surveying a large, diverse group of students at California State University–Fullerton she found they were “more likely to trust the endorsement of someone they know, such as their family or friends, or someone active in politics,” as opposed to a celebrity endorser.

On the other hand, she reports “young adults believe that average citizens are more likely to listen to a celebrity than a politician, expert, scientist, or academic.” So the perception that celebrities shape opinion is fairly strong, even among students who insist that isn’t true of them personally.

A 2013 study by Amy Bree Becker of Loyola University Maryland came to a somewhat disheartening conclusion for celebrities who want to make a difference. She surveyed 483 university undergraduates in the fall of 2009, asking them about their political knowledge, media diet, and thoughts about celebrity involvement in politics.

Participants were presented with six issues, ranging from the global refugee crisis to stem-cell research, and asked how appropriate it is “for celebrities to get involved and campaign for others to support their view.”

She found that the less important an issue was to the students, the more acceptable they considered celebrity involvement. They were far more OK with stars opining about the global refugee crisis, which didn’t affect them personally, than on health care or the economy, which did.

And that makes sense, when you think about it. Who wants to hear about Harry Hamlin’s health-care plan? Perhaps the best way the famous can leverage their celebrity is to draw attention to issues that haven’t reached many people’s radar.