When Sacheen Littlefeather delivered an Oscar speech on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Academy Awards, her remarks about the poor treatment of Native Americans were met with audible boos from the crowd. In 2014, Miley Cyrus sent a homeless man named Jesse to accept a VMA on her behalf. Cyrus' statement—or lack of, really—worked; My Friend's Place, a center for homeless youth in Hollywood, reported a $200,000 influx in donations by the next afternoon.
Celebrity endorsement, even the kind that doubles as a publicity stunt, has become a powerful asset for charitable non-profits. In the past few decades non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been saturated with starry alliances, from Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson's work at the United Nations to Jennifer Garner's with Save the Children. Last week, Miley Cyrus joined the fold by launching the Happy Hippie Foundation, a non-profit aimed at aiding homeless and LGBT youth.
Cyrus' cause is a worthy one: 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, according to the 2012 LGBT Homeless Youth Provider Survey. Most cite family rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identity as the primary reason for leaving home. With Happy Hippie, Cyrus hopes to rally support around prevention, needs, and awareness programs.
Famous people, it seems, are surprisingly ineffective at raising awareness or galvanizing supporters for their causes.
But will Cyrus' affiliation command the action and funds that such a sobering link deserves? Research into celebrity endorsement suggests otherwise. Famous people, it seems, are surprisingly ineffective at raising awareness or galvanizing supporters for their causes. The greatest beneficiary of the relationship between a celebrity and an NGO may in fact be the celebrity's public image, which puts a damper on the assertion that fame might be leveraged as a platform for good.
Cyrus has many powerful tools at her disposal to speak out about homeless youth: Namely, her well-followed Facebook and Instagram accounts, where she is currently interspersing promotions of Happy Hippie and its merchandise with selfies and collages; along with her well-trafficked interviews and account on Medium, where she recently announced the launch of the foundation.
But Cyrus' ability to bring attention to her cause may be limited, according to researchers at the University of Manchester, who conducted surveys of public awareness about celebrity charity causes in 2014. In a survey of two separate groups of over 1,000 people each, the researchers found that 66 percent could not associate any one celebrity with the major charity and aid NGOs they support. For those who could, the same few organizations and figures were mentioned—Comic Relief, Children in Need, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney. "While awareness of major NGO brands was high," the researchers wrote, "awareness of celebrity advocates for those brands was low.”
On the one hand, it's heartening to learn that the renown of major relief organizations precedes that of the celebrities they are affiliated with. On the other, it makes celebrity ambassadors look a bit self-serving.
But it would be overly dismissive to discount star power's use-value to NGOs. There is evidence that people like Cyrus can indeed raise funds, and even cut overhead. A 2013 Rutgers University study that analyzed upwards of 500 non-profits affiliated with celebrities found that their endorsements were associated with more contributions from the public. The researchers also found that for the organizations that spent money on fundraising, the extra push didn't help their bottom line. They therefore suggested that celebrity-endorsed organizations wouldn't have to blow their budget on "elaborate" fundraising efforts.
Celebrities are cost-effective for non-profits; they're not lucrative.
But, with a contributions uptick in the range of about 1.4 to 1.5 percent, the "celebrity-uplift effect" was statistically significant, albeit not financially substantial. Celebrities are cost-effective for non-profits; they're not lucrative.
The reason for these low figures may be obvious. While the Cyruses are over-exposed in entertainment, and on the news and social networks, they aren't personal acquaintances that touch our day-to-day lives in a tangible way—the real driver of sustained charitable donations, according to the researchers.
It seems that when it comes to choosing charitable causes, we are a self-involved bunch. Dr. Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia, who also worked on the University of Manchester study, has separately researched how often people think about poorer countries when celebrities are involved. In 2013, he asked participants of a focus group to keep a diary of how often they thought about less-fortunate foreign countries. The study found that only six percent of those entries mentioned famous people. Celebrities, he concluded, are "generally ineffective" at creating feelings for suffering outside people's own, immediate spheres.
Some of this has to do with authenticity; of those diary entries mentioning famous figures, many included "cynical statements" questioning the celebrities' motivations and candor. But when celebrities were perceived to be acting authentically, participants still didn't think much about the cause. Instead, the researchers reported that, overall, they felt a personal connection with the celebrity. When it comes to true feelings of concern for people outside our day-to-day existence, then, celebrity involvement benefits everyone but the people experiencing real suffering.
From the outside, it appears Miley Cyrus genuinely feels for the LGBT youth of America. She has expressed deep sadness for the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old teen who committed suicide last year after her parents allegedly refused to accept that she was transgender. (That tragedy in part inspired Happy Hippie.) Bruce Jenner's interview with Diane Sawyer has figured prominently in her promotional campaigns for Happy Hippie, since, in her words, he "spoke beautifully about using his platform and fame to do good and to make real change."
But when it comes down to real change, the only real beneficiary may be Cyrus' own image—the good-girl-gone-bad gone good again. As for Jesse, the homeless man who accepted Cyrus' VMA? One month later, he was re-arrested for violating the terms of his probation. Cyrus has since stated that he told her that everything in jail was great, except the food.