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Research: Celebrity Philanthropy

News Story

Those with societal influence have long been at the forefront of philanthropic causes. But as Dyson Professor Paul Ziek investigates, is philanthropy really a major factor in maintaining celebrity?

Celebrity and philanthropy go hand in hand. With prestige and money comes influence and power, and with influence and power comes the ability to effectuate positive change. Thus, from John D. Rockefeller to Bono, celebrities have had a long history in spearheading philanthropic causes.

But, as Paul Ziek, PhD, assistant professor of Media and Communication Arts at Dyson College and graduate assistant Kristin Stein '15, '17, investigated—do we, today’s public, actually care?

As it turns out, the answer is a little bit more complicated than a straightforward yes or no.

“Regardless of the reason for giving, there are social benefits associated with the behavior,” says Ziek. “It's been proven that private individuals, groups, and organizations that actively donate time and money receive praise and the benefit of improved or positive reputation. We wanted to see if that was the case for celebrities.”

Philanthropy, Ziek notes, would be classified as part of the extratextual aspect of celebrity—the aspect that isn’t the primary reason someone entered the public eye (i.e., a role on a hit TV show), but helps them create, build, and preserve their reputation.

“Reputation is important for celebrities because celebrity is a selection process,” says Ziek. “The public chooses certain individuals to be celebrities. The choice is done for a variety of reasons. We wanted to see if philanthropy plays a role in why certain individuals are chosen over others.”

To measure the relationship between philanthropy and public approval—or in other words, reputation—Ziek and Stein tested the public’s knowledge of celebrities and their respective philanthropic causes. Using TV Guide’s Top 15 Celebrities of 2014, researchers asked participants to match each celebrity to their personal charity of choice. The vast majority of participants scored extremely low, unable to determine which cause each big-name celebrity actively supported.

Furthermore, when participants were asked to match their own celebrity of choice to that celebrity’s philanthropic cause, many respondents were still unable to do so. Thus, Ziek and Stein determined that celebrity involvement in philanthropy is currently misperceived by the public.

 “We want to think that people are good. We want to think that our celebrities are good,” says Ziek. “But when it comes down it…it’s a bit contradictory.”

In other words Ziek noted that although people often noted that they care about philanthropy, the evidence proves that the concern only goes so far—it’s as if we want to see that the celebrity has that particular bullet point on their resume, but can’t be bothered to learn more about its actual contents. As the evidence suggests, there are other factors that we, the public, view to be more essential.  

As for those other factors? Given the changing nature of celebrity in the digital age, Ziek noted the means by which the relationship between the public and celebrities have shifted—that although the omnipresent nature of social media has made it easier than ever to build a direct connection with one’s audience, it’s also made sustaining celebrity more challenging. 

“You’re constantly working at it. You’re constantly working to maintain your status. And that’s the drag. Not only are you tweeting all the time. Not only are you updating Facebook, you’re always constantly out and about. It’s very difficult to maintain that.”

Given the ever-changing media landscape, will philanthropy emerge as a more crucial way to “maintain” celebrity in this increasingly connected and transparent age? Or, will constant tweets, selfies, and Instagram photos of cupcake pops continue to rule the day? If Ziek and Stein's research is of any indication, celebrities might want to focus more on the latter.