Branding a Cause - Branding and Advertising Week


By Hannah Borenstein

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

Celebrities, whether we want to accept it or not, have power. Their words and actions, which can be significantly more influential and widespread with social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube, make their opinions more accessible to the public.

The fact that fame is a tool for spreading the word on altruistic causes is no secret either. In the infamous KONY YouTube video, filmmaker Jason Russell sought to expose the crimes of Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who has been accused of (child abduction and forcing those children to be sex slaves or soldiers), through what Russell termed “Culture Makers and Policy Makers.”

In the documentary that went viral in March, Russell directly called upon celebrities such as Oprah, Ben Affleck, and Justin Bieber to use their popularity for a good cause. In one clip, George Clooney says, “I’d like indicted war criminals to enjoy the same level of celebrity as me. That’s our objective, just to shine a light on it.”

The video, nearly a half hour long, gained the attention of over 90 million viewers as a result of actions like those of Justin Bieber, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, tweeted: “it is time to make him known. I’m calling on ALL MY FANS, FRIENDS, and FAMILY to come together and #STOPKONY.”

But Bruce Douglas, the current Chief Marketing Officer at Education Dynamics, believes there was something more compelling about the KONY movement other than just the celebrity advertisements.

“What happened with KONY was highly unusual and actually pretty amazing,” Douglas says. “That a fairly long video about a very serious issue spread so widely and so quickly was crazy to see.  Not really sure I have any special insights into why this happened, but clearly it hit a nerve.  For something to spread virally so quickly and at such scale means that people were truly watching it and listening to it and felt moved enough to feel compelled to share it with their social networks.”

Prior to working at Education Dynamics, Douglas worked at – a website designed to help people manage their credit – and often worked with celebrities to advertise their services.

“We decided to go with Ben Stein as a celebrity face of our campaign since his dry sense of humor combined with his reputation for speaking out regarding financial matters was a great fit with our product, a credit report and credit score monitoring service,” Douglas said. “This campaign was used for a year and it did a great job of getting brand awareness for our service, though we eventually moved away from Ben since, once established, we wanted the service to stand on its own more.”

Douglas’ point, that the actual message must be strong enough to stand on its own, is one that can call into question the tangible effects of such a publicized movement as KONY.

In the KONY video, Russell narrates, “The problem is, 99% of the planet doesn’t know who he is. If they knew, Kony would have been stopped long ago.” However, despite how much of a viral sensation the video was, Joseph Kony’s whereabouts are still unknown to the general public, and now that celebrities have stopped tweeting, others have stopped talking.

Now, at Education Dynamics, Douglas recently incorporated Shannon Doherty into some of their TV advertising to reach an older demographic in promoting higher education. Although Douglas does not claim to have the appropriate expertise to evaluate the effects of KONY because his use of celebrities in marketing has never been directly linked to a social cause, he is aware of the benefits and potential downfalls of their endorsements.

“What I do know from my own experience and from being a student of advertising and marketing for a long time is that the use of celebrities, when done well, clearly does help raise awareness and move the sale of products and services.  But, it’s really hit or miss, and many celebrity-driven campaigns have fallen on deaf ears or fallen flat in achieving a set goal.  My use of celebrities in marketing campaigns did not reflect the support of any social cause associated with those celebrities, so my comments come from no real first-hand experience.”

In the KONY video Russell also says, “Celebrities, athletes, and billionaires have a loud voice. And what they talk about spreads instantly.”

While it may be true that celebrities can do as simple a thing as type a sentence on their iPhone and bring global attention to important issues, it’s important to remember that they are just advertising for a cause, not necessarily initiating any clear action.

Though the entire “99% of the planet” that was unaware of Kony’s wrongdoings prior to the video’s popularity may still not be entirely aware, millions of people are, and Kony has not yet been found. The association with advertisements and action may be short-lived, as is the celebrities’ self-appointed branding