Celebrity backed campaigns and gospel ministry

Advertising companies know their business. They are well aware that celebrity endorsements on products typically has an uptick in sales. They have lots of graphs and stats that show them clearly enough that the right celebrity endorsement, on the right products, will increase sales. The fact is, they wouldn’t keep paying celebrities to endorse their stuff if it didn’t work.

So, the government think, perhaps if we get celebrities to endorse our stuff we will get a similar uptake on whatever it is we’re asking people to do. That logic leads to this:


And more recently, this:

What could possibly go wrong? Those problems will be gone forever now! Except, of course, it won’t be because public information campaigns are not adverts. There is something different about an advert – and a celebrity endorsement in the advert – than a public campaign to encourage certain behaviour.

The key difference is this: celebrity endorsements in adverts work only on a few grounds. They work if – in selling shampoo or makeup – the particularly beautiful celebrity endorsing the product gives the impression that if you buy this, you too will look like them. When Michael Jordan or Lionel Messi try to flog basketball shoes and football boots, the impression given is that if you get the same footwear, you are more likely to play like them. All of it is clearly nonsense, but there is power in that messaging and it works. People want what is being sold because it will make them like the person they admire for whatever the thing is that they happen to do.

But in a public information broadcast encouraging people into particular behaviour, there is nothing about Elton John or Michael Caine – that is relevant to the need to get a COVID-19 jab – that will go any way to encouraging people to get it. They are not offering – or, implying that getting it will produce – anything for you, that they happen to have, which you admire in them. Their getting it is no more relevant to the vaccine than your next door neighbour getting it.

People are prepared to believe that if they buy the product in an advert they too might be like the person in the advert. In other words, there is something that they want – which nobody is making them get – that might lead to them emulating something they admire. But public information campaigns like the ones above are usually telling people to do something that they are clearly reticent, or actively do not want, to do. Whilst, in the case of the vaccine, we might argue that they stand to gain something by getting it, in the eyes of those who are wary of receiving it, they don’t believe they stand to gain anything at all. This, then, amounts to celebrities telling them what to do with (in the eyes of those who the campaign is targeting) no positive pay-off. Persuasion works in adverts because it promises something to the one who buys the product and entices them with being like the celebrity endorsing it. In public campaign telling people to do, or not do, something they don’t want to do already doesn’t carry the same weight.

Given the previous point, an awful lot then relies on a) people actually liking those endorsing the campaign and b) viewing them as ‘one of us’ rather than somebody with eminently different circumstances. It is possible, if somebody you admire is doing the thing you don’t want to do, it might sway you a little in favour of doing it. But if you don’t like the individual at all, it is going to go no way to encouraging you to do what you already don’t want to do. But more than that, if you are reticent to do something, being told what to do by people with a lot more time, money and entirely different circumstances to you is not likely to help either. If you are concerned that taking a vaccine might impact on your ability to work (for example) being told it’s fine by people with enough money so they don’t have to work isn’t going to sway your opinion. If you think the vaccine is dangerous, being told it isn’t by people with no medical training hardly assures you. Whatever the reason you are reticent to take it, being told what to do by people who might well be insulated from the realities of your day to day life is unlikely to augur well.

But you get the point. There is a clear distinction between adverts making promises and public information campaigns to change behaviour. Government seems to think that celebrity endorsements will work just as well in public information as they do in commercial advertising. But they fail to realise that the two media are significantly different. The same celebrity endorsement in one instance is likely to have a negative effect in the other. People do not mind being told, if you buy this thing (and you don’t have to) you will be just like me (such as you want whatever it is I’ve got). But people do not like being told what to do – especially when they see little pay off and are reticent to do it already – and like it even less when it comes from somebody who can easily be dismissed as insulated from the worst effects of whatever they’re worried about. Celebrity endorsements for products are one thing; public information campaigns are quite another.

I spoke here and here about questions of persuasion for the church. One way the church has, in recent years, tried to persuade people to follow Christ is through celebrity endorsements. Whenever somebody high profile becomes a believer, we can be quick to point and say, ‘look, there’s someone admirable. Listen to them!’ It is our own version of the public information attempt at behavioural change.

It is a poor approach because it suffers from exactly the same problem. For one thing, when we’re only offering Cliff Richard or Kris Akabusi (or whoever), we are not exactly flying high in the cool stakes. I don’t mean any disrespect to either man, but if we think the unparalleled cool of Cliff is going to win people to Christ, we need to take a hard look at ourselves. Even if we accept there may be some mad super-fans out there who are just nuts for 90s hurdlers, there will equally be those who are turned off by our celebrities. I’ll be honest, I am more put off by any campaign Elton John is involved in than drawn into it. I incline towards Morrissey’s view of him. We can hardly be surprised if people feel the same about Christian celebs – no celebrity is all things to all people.

But more significantly, people don’t like being told what to do. Unless people have a real sense of the greatness of Christ, and want it for themselves, no celebrity telling you to come to Jesus is going to help. The ‘advert’ (and I am loath to use that term) that works is the changed life of the person that they know, living out the gospel in their midst, causing that person to think, ‘I want what they’ve got.’ That is a far better endorsement than, ‘here’s 80s comedian, Tommy Canon, to tell you why Jesus is just terrific!’

Not only does this approach put more pressure on the celebrity than they can bear – and leaves us looking particularly stupid if they fall away – I just don’t think it works. I’m not saying there is no place for inviting someone well known – that will draw people in to listen – to share their testimony and to use that opportunity to share the gospel. But what I am saying is that we have problems if, at the end of that, someone effectively goes, ‘yes, I’ll take Jesus because I like cricket and Henry Olonga is a believer!’ I’m not even convinced that happens (certainly not with any frequency, at any rate) but that is surely not what we’re aiming for.

Far more likely, I think, people simply shrug their shoulders and think to themselves, what has Bobby Ball – a bloke famous for wearing braces – really got to do with me? What business has Gavin Peacock – a man known for kicking a bit of leather round a field – got telling me I’m a sinner or banging on about Heaven and Hell? They suffer from exactly the same issues that we do – people don’t like to hear the gospel. Only, they have the added complication that, often, the people we’re asking to listen don’t know them personally, have no relationship to them and (rightly or wrongly) can assume their lives are far too removed from mine for me to listen. These sorts of Christian public infomercials don’t really work for the same reasons that celebrity public information campaigns don’t tend to work.

There are times when personal relationships are far better than celebrity campaigns. There are times when what is small, quiet and apparently ‘ordinary’ is actually better. For what it’s worth, I think gospel ministry – along with public information campaigns – is one of them.