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Stars espousing social causes have already garnered attention, which is why many organisations enlist celebrities to highlight issues. But do these people really care? Or is it merely a vehicle for them to gain more publicity? Here we represent two sides of the argument.

Stars help shine spotlight on social issues

Last week, a colleague proclaimed at our daily editorial meeting that celebrities should stay away from taking up social causes. She was reacting to our coverage in tabloid! about Priyanka Chopra’s recent trip to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan as part of her role as Unicef Goodwill Ambassador.

I was so tempted to repeat Chopra’s brilliant clap back to a Twitter troll recently.

“Visit rural areas of India where malnourished kids [are] waiting for food,” someone tweeted to Chopra, responding to pictures and stories she was sharing of Syrian refugee children she had met at the camps.

Chopra didn’t waste any time.

“I’ve worked with Unicef India for 12 years and visited many such places. What have you done?” she shot back. “Why is one child’s problem less important than another?”

Social media quickly gave the Quantico star a joint slow clap.

Chopra may not be the brightest bulb in the room: She had to apologise on Friday after her ignorant comments about the Indian state of Sikkim — and I personally will never forgive her for choosing to (terribly) play the role of Mary Kom, the boxing hero from my home state of Manipur, in a biopic. But there’s no denying her popularity.

She is a certified international star with massive clout, and whatever she does gets attention. So if she urges people to do more to help the Syrian refugee crisis, why would we take that away from her?

The common argument (eye roll) usually is that celebrities often do it to boost their own image. My response always is, ‘So what?’

There are so many issues we need to talk more about — from women’s rights to the environment and racial equality to poverty and mental health. And if it takes a celebrity to sow the seeds in our consciousness, even if the said celebrity stands to gain, we should applaud it and encourage it. The more people know, the more it’s talked about, and the higher the chances of something being done. Right?

But talk is cheap. Let the numbers speak for themselves: Remember the viral Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014, which also involved a huge number of celebrities? The ALS Association received $41.8 million (Dh153.4 million) in donations in one month, more than double the $19.4 million the association received during the whole year in 2013, according to the New York Times.

Raising donations

This week alone has seen so many examples of celebrities coming together for a great cause. The Hand in Hand telethon, which saw everyone from Beyonce to Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey come together to urge people to help victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, raised more than $44 million on Tuesday. This besides an already long list of stars donating personally: from Sandra Bullock ($1 million) to Ellen DeGeneres ($50,000) and Kevin Hart, who donated $25,000 and then name-dropped his celebrity friends, urging them to match his donation.

On Friday night, Rihanna raised $5 million at her star-studded Diamond Ball, which benefits the Clara Lionel Foundation — named after her grandparents — helping fund poor students’ education around the world.

Selena Gomez, who recently became the first person to reach 100 million followers on Instagram, has been very vocal about her struggles with lupus, the auto-immune disease. On Thursday, she revealed that she had been keeping a low profile because she had had a kidney transplant. Her heartfelt Instagram post that linked to lupusresearch.org and her appeals have helped raised more than $500,000, the group’s president and CEO Kenneth Farber told E! News.

Angelina Jolie, who has travelled to more than 20 countries as the goodwill ambassador for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, on Friday released her next directorial venture First They Killed My Father. Based on a memoir set during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime in Cambodia, the film was inspired by Jolie’s son Maddox, whom she adopted from Cambodia.

Jolie, who underwent a double mastectomy in 2013, has been very outspoken about her fight with cancer. Time magazine even called it ‘the Angelina Effect’ when her story led to a sudden surge in gene testing around the world.

Depression

In Bollywood, Deepika Padukone, one of India’s biggest stars, has openly spoken about her struggles with depression at the peak of her career.

She has since founded the Live Love Laugh Foundation, to encourage people to break through the stigma and seek help.

Her counterpart Chopra’s claim, that she has worked with Unicef for 12 years, is true. Her job as goodwill ambassador has taken her across India, and, once she found global stardom, to different parts of the world.

The fact is, there’s no denying that celebrities, irrespective of their motivation, help bring a lot more to the table. That’s why they’ve been sought out for generations.

You must have a pretty dim view of the world to ask them to be taken out of the equation. Unless, of course, you’re just trolling.

-- By David Tusing, tabloid! Editor

Message, not messenger, must be the focus

 Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

It’s all about optics. That’s something A-list celebrity and Indian actor Priyanka Chopra was well aware of when she took up the assignment as Unicef’s brand ambassador in Jordan last week.

She played the role to a tee.

Often pretentious, she delved into carefully curated conversations, with two kisses and a bear hug for each child she was photographed with at the Syrian refugee camps.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Chopra’s new film — based on three child refugees in Sikkim, a northeastern Indian state — was slated for release the same week.

But while she stuck to the script in Jordan, she steered off course while promoting Pahuna.

For one, Sikkim is not insurgency-hit — as Chopra proclaimed in a recent interview — and Pahuna is not the first film to be produced from the state.

Several people took to responsible trolling on social media, prompting the Sikkimese government to ask Chopra to show them the film, prior to its official release.

So much hype for her first home production, you’d think all of this was just happenstance.

Or another lesson in make-believe? And who better than celebrities to do it best?

I’m not asking you to “make” something out of her appearance in Jordan and her subsequent film on Sikkim, but please do not expect me to “believe” that this was not a non-literal attempt at publicity for her film.

Here’s why: Syria has been in a state of war since 2011. Jordan opened its borders to refugees soon after. Chopra, on the other hand, has been a Unicef ambassador since 2010 — first in India — and internationally since last year. Why would she choose to visit Jordan this year, right before the release of her film?

Moreover, as an Indian national, if she is ignorant about the basic demographics or political scenario in Sikkim, it will take a lot to convince me that she is the right person to highlight the plight of refugees in an Arab nation that’s 5,044kms away.

Especially after what happened last year. The former Miss World faced a lot of flak after she was featured on the cover of Conde Nast magazine’s Indian edition wearing a shirt which retained the word traveller, while the other three options — immigrant, outsider and refugee — were struck off. The issue? People said no one is a refugee by choice.

But Chopra, like a lot of her peers, is a celebrity by choice — an occupation that brings with it a lot of social responsibility and mileage. She apologised in both instances — for wearing the shirt and for her comments on Sikkim — eventually joining the list of celebrities who got on the wrong side of a social cause.

Remember Pepsi’s cringe-worthy advertisements featuring Kendall Jenner and Beyonce? While the first reeked of ignorance, the second was called out for its hypocrisy — Beyonce was part of Michelle Obama’s fitness campaign prior to signing on the dotted line for the $50 million (Dh183.5 million) deal with Pepsi.

In a world of failed celebrity endorsements where, for example, Kim Kardashian advertised a diet pill which was subsequently banned in Australia or Martina Hingis sued a tennis-gear company claiming the shoes she endorsed were the cause of her injuries, there is also the case of Angelina Jolie — a champion for child rights and UNHCR’s special envoy since 2001. She practised what she preached by adopting three orphans since 2002 — Maddox from Cambodia, Zahara from Ethiopia and Pax from Vietnam.

It is important to mention the year here. That’s because, according to a report released by the US department of State in 2015, there was a 74 per cent decline in Intercountry Adoptions since 2004 — two years after Jolie adopted her first child.

In simpler terms, it means that while 23,000 children were adopted in 2004, only 5,000 found a new home in 2015. The US is not alone. Intercountry adoptions saw a similar drop in 23 other major receiving countries, according to the report by Financial Times. Cambodia has since closed shop for the initiative.

I’m not saying that the onus lies with Jolie alone to encourage more people to adopt children — despite her star status, it would be naive to believe that she has the clout to impact the facts and figures. But the fact of the matter is that even though Jolie is one of the few celebrities who comes to mind when you think of adoption and child rights — she even made a film on child soldiers in Cambodia — it did nothing to drive the figures.

On the contrary, the initiative continues because of the hard work done by boring, unsexy, grassroots volunteers or groups who don’t believe in going down the celebrity endorsement path.

Negative impact

At the ceremony last year where Chopra was anointed by Unicef, she said: “My wish for children is freedom. The freedom to live. The freedom to think.”

So, here’s a thought — do social causes really need a celebrity’s endorsement to create more awareness?

Not according to the research and consequent study published by AdAge in July this year, which found that one-fifth of celebrity endorsements had a negative impact on the advertisement’s effectiveness. Why? Because respondents believed celebrity advocacy got more attention for the messenger, rather than the message itself. The results were in line with conclusions made during two other studies conducted in 2014.

In both the experiments, by the Universities of Manchester and Sussex, 75 per cent of participants said they did not react at all to celebrity endorsements, while 66 per cent could not name a single celebrity linked to high-profile charities.

Those respondents who could recall a name said that they did so because of a personal connection to the cause, as opposed to allegiance to a celebrity. And that’s something that I relate with too.

I lost my mother to cancer in 2008 and Sandra Bullock is my favourite actor. Two bits of very personal and totally disconnected information — on the surface at least.

And while this may seem inconsequential to this conversation, it is significant because Bullock lends her name to a lot of charities, none of which involve cancer. Will that stop me from watching her movies? No. Will I start contributing to the causes that she advocates for? Probably not. I will, as I always have, contribute to those that work towards helping cancer patients, because that’s a cause close to my heart.

And that’s not for optics.

-- By Nasheet Jaffer Khan