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.
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.