The US Elections and celebrities: The ultimate trump(ed) card?

The US Elections and celebrities: The ultimate trump(ed) card?

Sonja Prokopec, Professor of Marketing at ESSEC Business School and internationally-renowned expert in consumer behavior and luxury branding, takes us into the marketing world of celebrity endorsement and voter reaction from a consumer perspective. 

The celebrity: branded to please

Candidates for the US presidency have long-since used the endorsement of celebrities to trumpet their cause and win over potential voters’ hearts and minds on the crucial day. The 2016 US election campaign follows the trend, though celebrity support this time round is on an unequalled scale and intensity: Sigourney Weaver, George Clooney, Britney Spears, Richard Gere and Amy Schumer are just the tip of the iceberg of stars who have stepped up into the limelight – this time to pledge their support for their candidate Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, too, has his host of celebrity followers, sometimes surprising, in the form of Ted Nugent, Azealia Banks and the American TV and social media personality Tila Tequila to name a few. But what is a ‘celebrity’ in marketing terms and how do they differ? 

From a marketing perspective, celebrities are ‘brands’ that are carefully managed to be perceived in a certain way by the audience: their choice of roles, appearances, choice of clothing and even charities they support all go toward building their brand. But how they leverage their brand may differ: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, for example, choose to manage their brands to increase personal wealth and popularity, whereas others use their brand as a platform to make more significant changes in the world, to speak for those who cannot make themselves heard, or to fight for causes that matter. The latter include such celebrities as Angelina Jolie and her humanitarian work among refugees, Emma Watson and her commitment to women’s rights and childcare, and even Amal Clooney – yes, what else, George’s wife – human rights’ lawyer and activist. However, there exists a certain cruel justice in the world of celebrities, just as in anyone else’s: not all celebrities are created equal. The power of, for example, Oprah Winfrey is every celebrity’s ultimate dream in terms of awareness, visibility, and number of followers but also power to make change happen. 

The US election process: do voters get the message? And which one? 

Voting for a presidential candidate is an important decision for most of the voters in the US election. It is also a complex one: they have to put thought into who the candidate is and what they stand for – not an easy task given the overload of information, conflicting values, and aggressively persuasive tactics of the contenders. If we examine this from a consumer behavior perspective, voting for a presidential candidate for most of the voters is a high-involvement activity, where the information is processed via central route processing*.  This requires careful and thoughtful consideration of the true merits of the information before forming an opinion and ultimately making the decision on your preferred candidate. It could be seen as unfortunate that US politics and parties have become very much divided in the last decade, so much so that many voters are more likely to side with the candidate from their own party even if they do not necessarily like them or agree with their ideas. For example, if we look at Trump's voter base, no matter what new negative information is released about him, the base, at least, is not swayed. It appears that for many voters, the choice of a candidate becomes a low-involvement activity, where they engage in what we call peripheral route processing,* where they are more likely to make simple inferences about the merits of the advocated position.  

The cues received by the individual under the peripheral route are generally unrelated to the logical quality of the argument. These cues will involve factors such as the credibility or attractiveness of the sources of the message (i.e. a nice smile, colors or impressive dress sense), or the production quality of the message (i.e. gestures, words or even the choice of music to accompany the campaign meetings). It is interesting to note that contrary to many Trump supporters, supporters of Bernie Sanders, for example, appear to engage more deeply with the political issues at hand and carefully consider the true merits of the information presented in support of their advocacy. This could, moreover, explain Sander’s tremendous gain in popularity along with the amount of donations raised for his campaign.

Celebrity Endorsement in the 2016 US election process: sometimes the card is trumped 

If we think about celebrities as sources of information, celebrity endorsement tends to be more effective for low-involvement products – where the consumer doesn’t have to think deeply about the choice to purchase – or when consumers engage in the peripheral processing of information – color, sound, attractiveness. This points to celebrity endorsements tending to work better when deciding on what perfume to buy rather than on which candidate to vote for. 

It has already been said that not all celebrities are created equal: the same is just as true, however, for voters. For example, first-time voters are more influenced by celebrities because they generally tend to have not yet developed strong attitudes toward political issues. In addition, less educated voters who might have more difficulty to process some of the more intellectual issues in the debate such as foreign policy or the benefits of immigration, will also be more likely to be influenced by superficial cues such as celebrity endorsement. 

Celebrities differ in their level of credibility and expertise when it comes to politics. Celebrities that have been involved with political or human rights issues before the election (and have built their brand to be perceived as such), can have more power when supporting a candidate. Such an example can be seen in Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008, which was not only found to have increased overall voter participation and the number of contributions received by Obama, but also to have contributed to an estimated overall 1 million votes in his favor (Garthwaite and Moore 2008). 

Can celebrity endorsement backfire? Sure, it can. If the celebrity in question is associated or perceived in such a way that does not benefit the politician or the product they are endorsing, instead of acting as a glittering ‘buy-me’ message it may turn out to be a party pooper more than anything else. If we look, for example, at some of Trump's supporters such as Charlie Sheen – as it happened, the pinnacle of the bluff and lampoon – any other political candidate would not be too pleased. 

*See the Elaboration likelihood model

 Other articles by Prof. Sonja Prokopec:

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