Kyle Poplin

Weekly Roundup – 4/5/2014: ‘Oooo Shiny!’ applies even in global health, as celebrities can help set public agendas

In a piece in “The Guardian” this week, Tanya Gold got mad about celebrities aligning themselves with worthy causes.

Gold’s pain is palpable as she accuses Angelina Jolie, movie star, of reinventing herself “as a philanthropic lobbyist of the most celestial kind.” Gold says we’ve spun off into “satirical lands … a dystopia seething with hypocrisy and soaked with vanity.”

It can, indeed, seem self-serving when movie stars pop in for photo-ops at various charities and worthy causes.

In fact, it often is self serving. These are, after all, celebrities. They tend to seek out the spotlight and emote once they’re in it.

Isn’t it unseemly for these charities to be fawning over famous folks who, at best, are only involved in the cause part-time and, at worst, are in it for themselves?

Not really. Because we live in a world overtaken by a new disorder: Attention Deficit Oooo Shiny! These days, people seem able to pay attention to only so many things, and for only so long.

Consider the world of global health.

According to PATH, “Diarrheal disease is the most common cause of illness and the second leading cause of child death in the world. It is claiming the lives of nearly 4,000 children each day.” The sad thing about this is that there are known solutions to these diseases; they just aren’t getting to the people who need them. PATH points out that diarrheal diseases are no longer considered a global priority and the momentum to focus on them “has slowed, with declines in research and funding commitments.”

This was confirmed at the “Best Buys In Global Health” conference hosted by the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., last month. Various panelists agreed that low-profile but deadly diseases like diarrhea might indeed by “best buys” for those hoping to change the world, but they’re too often overshadowed by high-profile diseases like HIV and malaria, where there seems to be more “public will.”

And, the panelists pointed out, governments also play a large role in setting public health agendas.

Given that “public will” and publicity-seeking politicians help set priorities for funding – and funding ultimately saves lives – why not get a celebrity involved in your worthy cause? In a world fascinated by shiny objects, it makes sense to make use of shiny celebrities.

Sometimes it doesn’t end well. Scarlett Johansson and Oxfam recently parted ways over “a fundamental difference of opinion.” Oxfam opposes trade in goods produced by Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories; Johansson starred in an advertising campaign for a drink firm which owns a factory in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

But the sad truth is that, even in parting ways, Johansson and Oxfam garnered international headlines, meaning a lot of people heard about Oxfam and its mission for the first time. Ultimately, that’s good for Oxfam and those it helps.

It’s uncomfortable to watch some of these celebrities build their personal brand by parachuting in on worthy causes, seemingly never really getting their hands dirty or their passion engaged. But it can be refreshing when the celebrities get the tone right, as Matt Damon did when he went “on strike” for (See below).

There’s a reason so many charities build relationships with stars. It boils down to helping the maximum number of people possible. And as long as that’s the end game, it’s a game worth playing, isn’t it?

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Health Care
marketing and advertising, philanthropy