A celebrity campaign to raise awareness for an illness or product can be a wonderful thing. Michael J. Fox has done a lot for Parkinson’s disease research, and Amy Schumer has brought in thousands for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
But celebrity endorsements can also become public relations nightmares. Just ask Subway sandwich executives about their former weight-loss hero, Jared Fogle, who was recently charged with sex crimes.
Kim Kardashian also stirred up controversy with her endorsement of a debacle a morning sickness drug.
“A big celebrity brings in big spotlights,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
While celebrities used to be patient-advocate groups’ go-to public relations strategy, the risks they bring are convincing some organizations to use the growing power of social media instead to ignite their awareness campaigns.
The celebrity model dates back at least to 1962, when television star Danny Thomas founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The facility is now one of the largest healthcare charities in the United States, with 9 million active individual donors and a $1.9 million daily operating budget.
But the ALS Association’s highly successful social media campaign, the Ice Bucket Challenge, may make celebrities obsolete.
Undoubtedly, there are advantages to having a celebrity step forward on behalf of your organization. They bring immediate publicity and a faithful fan base to your cause.
“It’s very intense media environment,” said Benjamin. “Breaking through that environment and getting your message heard is very difficult.”
Star power can bring quick loyalty, too. If a celebrity’s fans believe their idol thinks an organization is worthy, they are more inclined to donate.
“It’s a ‘trust me’ issue,” said Benjamin. “An organization can benefit from this association.”
In general, celebrities are skilled at articulating messages. Many are also genuinely committed to a cause.
“They are individuals who have made it and want to give back,” said Benjamin.
Amy Schumer, star of the movie “Trainwreck,” is helping the National Multiple Sclerosis Society because her father, Gordon, has the disease. He lives in an assisted living complex.
Schumer and her “Trainwreck” director, Judd Apatow, have helped raise more than $175,000 for multiple sclerosis research through the Trainwreck Comedy Tour event.
Cyndi Zagieboylo, president and chief executive officer of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, told Healthline that having the support of a well-known figure like Schumer is certainly a boost.
“We work with high profile individuals in whatever way we can as we do realize that these admired and respected talents can have a significant impact on rallying fans to join the MS movement,” Zagieboylo said in an email.
Michael J. Fox has done wonders for raising awareness for Parkinson’s after disclosing in 1998 that he had been diagnosed with the disease seven years earlier at the age of 30.
The star of the “Back to the Future” films has set up his own foundation. So far, it has contributed more than $450 million to Parkinson’s research.
Fox’s efforts do more than help his organization. They’re a bonus for all Parkinson’s groups, according to Leslie Chambers, president and chief executive officer of the American Parkinson Disease Association.
Chambers told Healthline that Fox’s likability, humor and public speaking skills have helped her organization and others raise money and awareness.
“He is the perfect combination of who you want in a spokesperson,” said Chambers.
Fox has also highlighted the fact that younger people can also get the disease.
“He put a new face and a new spin on Parkinson’s,” she said.
But a celebrity endorsement can also be a double-edged sword. Sometimes celebrities get into legal trouble after becoming the “face” of a campaign.
Subway quickly distanced itself from longtime spokesman Jared Fogle after he agreed to plead guilty to child pornography and other sex-related charges.
Other celebrities simply generate bad publicity. Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent out a warning about an Instagram photograph Kim Kardashian posted endorsing the morning sickness drug Diclegis.
The post initially garnered 450,000 “likes,” but FDA officials told the drug’s manufacturer the Instagram message didn’t contain any of the medication’s potential risks, as required by law.
The post was eventually taken down.
Then there’s Jenny McCarthy, whose autism activism led parents utterly astray.
The 1994 Playboy Playmate of the Year and former co-host of the talk show “The View” established an organization dedicated to increasing awareness and research about autism, an illness she says her son has.
However, McCarthy’s actions on behalf of autism have been poisoned by her insistence that common childhood vaccinations can cause autism.
“A celebrity will sometimes bring all their perspectives to the table,” Benjamin said.
He recommends both the celebrity and the organization re-evaluate their partnership every so often.
One of the most public break-ups came four years ago between comedian Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).
For 55 years, Lewis was the national chairman of the MDA. He hosted their annual Labor Day weekend telethon for more than a half-century, raising an estimated $2 billion.
In 2011, MDA officials announced Lewis would retire as telethon host and step down as national chairman. The comedian was slated to make a final appearance on the September 2011 telethon, but it was abruptly cancelled.
Hollywood insiders said at the time it appeared MDA officials had come to the conclusion Lewis had become more of a liability than an asset.
The telethon was scaled back the next four years. This Labor Day weekend it’s not being held at all.
Zagieboylo said the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is careful not to rely too heavily on any one star, despite the group’s success with celebrities like Schumer and Apatow.
“Celebrities are human just like everyone else, and sometimes they have personal issues which engender negative publicity,” she said. “However, since we do not tie the society name to any specific individual, allowing each personality to speak to their fans in their own way, we avoid being the target of negative publicity should it arise.”
Chambers added her Parkinson’s organization does diligent research whenever it is considering an arrangement with a celebrity or attending a well-publicized event.
“Sometimes things sound really good when you first hear them,” said Chambers, who has worked for non-profit groups for 30 years. “However, once you engage, there is a lot of work to manage.”
Technology has given non-profit groups another avenue to pursue publicity and donations. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter provides organizations the chance to build awareness more inexpensively and with less risk.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is returning for a second season. The idea is simple. People secured donations with the promise of filming themselves having a bucket of ice water dumped on their head.
Last year, 2.5 million people raised $115 million for the ALS Association through the digital activism campaign. A number of celebrities accepted the challenge, but the focus was on was everyday individuals.
Benjamin said the Internet gives every organization a chance to strike it big in the publicity arena.
“Social media levels the playing field,” he said.
He added it also relieves organizations of the risk of being tied too closely to a celebrity.
“It doesn’t lock you into a single individual,” he said. “The downside doesn’t stick to you.”
She said social media will play a big role in the future of fundraising and awareness campaigns for non-profits. Internet campaigns are relatively inexpensive, have the potential for huge outreach and can also reach across generational lines, she said.
“The return on investment is much greater,” Chambers said. “It’s now a central part of our focus.”
But one thing’s the same: It’s hard to get your message heard over the background noise.
“You need resources and expertise to do it,” she said.