Celebrities and Politics: Match Made in Heaven?

Published: 28 August 2014

Political parties should think very carefully about the reputational impacts before accepting celebrity support.

There are two ways for parties to attract voters: the first is to use facts, figures and well-constructed arguments to persuade people who actually care about politics and policies.

What’s your reaction when you see celebrities rubbing shoulders with political leaders? Are you left feeling inspired, or reaching for a sick bucket? An interesting piece of research on this very subject has been making the news this week. Research in The Times found that when celebrities publicly endorse political parties, they can end up denting the reputation not only of the party they support, but their own standing as well.

The study was completed by Professor Anthony Nownes at the University of Tennessee. He focused on the impact of support by former Friends actress Jennifer Aniston for the Democrat Party, and NFL star Peyton Manning’s backing of the Republicans. What he found was a prime example of a phenomenon dreaded by all brands: negative association. If voters have a negative view of a particular party, their opinion of any celebrity endorsing that party will fall. Likewise, parties could see support fall if a controversial celebrity decides to publicly back them.

There are countless examples of political parties using famous songs at events or on videos, or of actors joining politicians on our TV screens. The question this research begs, then, is why do it?

According to Linstock Associate Dr Simon Moore, Director at researchers and consultants Innovation Bubble, there is sound psychological theory behind it. There are two ways for parties to attract voters: the first is to use facts, figures and well-constructed arguments to persuade people who actually care about politics and policies.

However, only a minority of the population have an active vested interested in the intricacies of political science. The vast majority are more persuaded by secondary factors, a route to persuasion known as ‘the peripheral route’. These factors could be the colour of the political party, how attractive the party leader is, how eloquently or plainly they speak – or their association with the popularity, attractiveness or coolness of a particular celebrity.

In Simon’s words, though, this technique is “a double edged weapon”, and it goes back to the findings of this week’s research. For me, it all comes down to the shaky phenomenon that is popular opinion, and how prone it is to volatile change. For example, who’d have predicted that Gary Barlow, the squeaky clean former lead singer of Take That, would become a toxic association for the Conservatives?

Falls from popular grace among celebrities and politicians are regular occurrences. This research is a timely reminder for any brand strategist or communications professional that while they can be a hugely potent tactic, that must be weighed against the risk of it all going sour.

Tom Yazdi
Senior Consultant

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Tom leads projects for Grant Thornton International, Bovill and Canada Life. He has a diploma from the PRCA.

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