USA TODAY: JEETENDR TALKS ANGELINA & ACTIVISM

Stars inspire but do they move us to action?

Maria Puente, Ann Oldenburg and Maeve McDermott | USATODAY

There has been a surge of inspiring stars speaking out lately, and not just on stage and screen. People are listening — especially in the media. But are more people doing as a result of celebrity urging?

Turns out it's not an easy thing to measure, although some are trying — and coming up with surprising results.

Sometimes celebs can make a difference, as in the "Katie Couric effect," when the TV newswoman had a colonoscopy live on TV in 2000 to emphasize the importance of screening for colon cancer. Many more people started getting tested, medical professionals say.

Since then, the number of celebrities using their high profiles to draw attention to a range of social issues has only increased.

The chorus of raised voices inspiring global conversations includes:

• Angelina Jolie: In a beautifully crafted essay in the New York Times two years ago, she urged women to get genetic testing for cancer, and explained why she did it and what happened. Jolie's disclosure highlights women's painful choices. People were paying attention: There were eight times as many tweets about her as usual the day her essay ran. She wrote a follow-up column last month.


• Kerry Washington: She brought an LGBT audience to its feet at a GLAAD media awards gala in Los Angeles last month, speaking up for all kinds of diversity in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the cameras. Result: Three times as many tweets.

• Justin Timberlake: He accepted an innovation-and-creation award at iHeartRadio Music Awards last month, giving a sweet shout out to the "creation" he and his pregnant wife are soon to welcome, and summed up by telling young people it's OK to be different or weird. Result: Four times as many tweets.

• Shonda Rhimes: Accepting an award at the Human Rights Gala, the creator of such popular TV shows as Grey's Anatomy and Scandal addressed all the kids who are "chubby and not so cute and nerdy and shy and invisible and in pain. Whatever your race, whatever your gender, whatever your sexual orientation, I'm standing here to tell you: You are not alone." Result: Five times as many tweets.

• Screenwriter Graham Moore: In his Oscar acceptance speech for best adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game, he movingly appealed to kids contemplating suicide, saying he once thought about it too, and look at him now. It's OK to not fit in, he declared: "Stay weird, stay different." There were 14,000 tweets per minute during his speech.

And there are more: Michelle Obama celebrated the awesomeness of black girls at the Black Girls Rock! awards in New Jersey last week. Duchess Kate of Cambridge spoke out on the touchy issue of children's mental health as one of her charity interests. Emma Watson, as a UN goodwill ambassador, stood up for feminism and gender equality in a speech at Davos, Switzerland, in January.


The idea of celebs taking up causes is "not necessarily a new thing, but it's come to more awareness because ours is such an immediate-gratification society and because of the rise of social media," says Matt Donahue, a lecturer in the Department of Pop Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "You can't do much anymore without things blowing up rather quickly."

Make that instantaneously. A celeb only has to tweet and it's around the world in a flash.

When Jolie urges women to get genetic testing, or when Robin Roberts shares her breast cancer ordeal over months on TV, it's possible for medical professionals to measure the effect.

After Couric's husband died of colon cancer and she began her awareness campaign, screenings jumped 20%, and the effect lasted for up to a year, a study in Archives of Internal Medicine found.

TV show creator Shonda Rhimes: "Celebrities have learned that it's not only difficult to keep secrets, but that their fans respect them more when they own their truth," says Howard Bragman of online reputation management service Reputation.com. Theirs are "revelations that move people to act and save lives in the process."

What celebrities say gets attention, but what they're saying also seems to resonate more these days, says Linda Ong, CEO of TruthCo, a cultural branding and insights consulting firm.

Stars "advocate Millennial values of social justice and equality and tolerance, and the reason they resonate more strongly now is that there's an entire and sizable generation that has been raised with these ideas," Ong says.

Millennials value individualism and community, believe in working to make things better and admire authenticity, she says. It's no longer good enough for a star to just write a check to save the pandas; we want to see more.

"People are looking for inspiration," Ong says. But it has to be seen as authentic and doable. "Someone who IS experiencing (say, cancer) has more credibility than someone who just says, 'Hey we should pay attention.'"

Jolie has a number of causes. She has campaigned to raise awareness of sexual violence in war zones, bringing more attention to a difficult issue. But can she get ordinary people to act?

There is a danger of "badvocacy," Ong says. "The global ambassador role is the more conventional celebrity role in raising awareness. The 'badvocacy' celebrity is seen as swooping in to draw attention to a cause, then going back to a cushy life."

The efficacy of celebrity campaigns is "a big question mark," Donahue says.

Getting a celebrity on board can backfire, adds Jeetendr Sehdev, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California and an expert on celebrity branding. He has done a first-ever study of the effectiveness of celebs in the U.N. Goodwill Ambassadors program, including the likes of Jolie, Watson, Victoria Beckham, Nicole Kidman, Jackie Chan and Mira Sorvino.

He found that the U.N.'s image is shifting to a "silly, phony star-stuck organization," and some celebrity partnerships have alienated potential supporters.

"People can end up caring less for the cause," he says, citing Emma Watson's gender-equality campaign for the U.N.

Watson was ranked No. 4 in his list of "seven least credible" goodwill ambassadors, based on surveys of how people judged celebs on 18 "perceptual criteria" such as expertise, morality, intelligence, honesty, altruism, compassion, sensitivity and trustworthiness.

Watson is young, pretty, seemingly sincere and globally famous, thanks to the Harry Potter movies. Still, "she was not thought to be a credible ambassador — people were questioning whether she was outside her comfort zone," Sehdev says.

Victoria Beckham, Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry also were on the "least credible" list, while the "most credible" list included David Beckham, Liam Neeson and Mia Farrow.

Cynicism about celebrity activism even extends to Jolie's humanitarian work, for which Queen Elizabeth II recently named her an honorary dame.

Sehdev says his research shows that 83% of those surveyed think Jolie became a U.N. ambassador at least partly to combat her "home-wrecker" image for allegedly breaking up the marriage of Brad Pitt (now her husband) and Jennifer Aniston.

"There's already a lot of awareness in the marketplace of humanitarian issues. The challenge is to get people to act, and that's why (the U.N.) needs to be strategic about partnerships," he says.

Instead, "They're partnering hefty causes with anyone with a No. 1 single, and that's inappropriate. An ambassador for a serious issue needs to be someone with a serious level of expertise."


Jeetendr was interviewed on the impact of celebrity influence in USAToday.  View the original article here.