Political campaigns need to ditch the celebrities as a communications tool

About the author

Kerri Prince prepared this article in 2020 as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy

Photo by Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash
Photo by Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash

‘Russell Brand has endorsed Labour – and the Tories should be worried’ was the headline of political columnist Owen Jones’ article in The Guardian on 4th May 2015, just three days before the Conservative Party won the 2015 general electionOwen Jones – and the Labour Party – are not the first to try to use celebrity endorsements as a tool to winning elections, and they will not be the last.

Kerri Prince
Kerri Prince

But how much weight does a celebrity endorsement really have? If we are to look at this particular example, in the week running up to the election opinion polling organisations had the Labour Party on track to receive of 33.5% of the popular vote – yet they received just 30.4% after all the ballots were counted. Rather than a ‘Russell Brand bounce’, the party performed below expectations. What appears to be a reasonable conclusion is that the celebrity endorsement of Russell Brand did nothing to help the party – and the Tories had no reason to be worried.

Over in the United States, another celebrity endorsement made headlines. In October 2018, singer-songwriter Taylor Swift publicly backed two Democratic candidates in Tennessee, breaking a silence that was perceived to be quiet support for the Republican Party. Despite Swift broadcasting her endorsement to her 87.1m followers on Twitter and 140m on Instagram, many of which would be eligible to vote in the elections, the Republican candidate won the Tennessee Senate race. Interestingly, opinion polls up until October 8th – the day Swift made her endorsement – had the seat as a toss-up that could swing Democrat. Yet after the Democratic camp started promoting Taylor Swift as a key endorser, opinion polls started moving towards favouring the Republican candidate. This could simply be down to undecided voters making their minds up, or it could suggest that celebrity endorsements are a turn off for voters.

Celebrity endorsements are not private individuals making their opinion public. Those endorsements are being used by political parties in their election communication materials, putting them front and centre in a high stakes contest.

On the day of the General Election in 2019, the then Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted a thank you message to Stormzy, and had tweeted about him numerous times since Stormzy had originally come out supporting the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Over on the party’s Instagram, you will find celebrity endorsements from actor Ross Kemp to Martin Freeman, Stormzy to Maxine Peake. There is a clear tactic of using celebrities to encourage people to support the Labour Party. This is a strange approach for a party that uses ‘for the many, not the few’ as a sloganwhen using the voices of ‘ordinary people’ that voters can relate to could reap more rewards.  

Nor are the Conservative Party strangers to using celebrity endorsements, with Simon Cowell voicing his support for them in a double page spread in The Sun in 2010. This is an act of attempted persuasion targeting people who may like Cowell and therefore add weight to what he has to say. Yet as the Conservative Party only came out as the largest party in a hung parliament despite the backing of powerful and influential people such as Simon Cowell, this could suggest that voters like Cowell’s sharp tongue and unfiltered criticism of people’s talent on television, but they are less interested in what his political opinions are.

This supports the example of Taylor Swift, who has received musical accolades that her peers can only hope to dream of, with a huge social media following and fan base. Yet this wasn’t enough to convince swing voters that Taylor Swift’s political opinions were worth listening to.

There has been research conducted on this premise, including a study on how celebrity endorsements shape public opinion on an issue or towards a political party or candidate, with the research finding that people who read about celebrity endorsements were more likely to agree with the celebrity’s position if they had a favourable view of them. This means that if a celebrity figure is the subject of controversy or is viewed to be ‘marmite’, their endorsement could even be damaging to a campaign. Looking back at Taylor Swift, despite her fame and fortune, she had a turbulent few years being at the centre of a public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, as well as the collapse of a number of high-profile friendships and romantic relationships. For those who were unsure who to vote for in that Tennessee election but were not fans of Swift, may even have been unintentionally pushed in the direction of the Republican candidate that Swift was advocating voting against.

Political parties are amplifying the voices of the rich and famous in an attempt to win votes, which prompts the question whether they are also using their communications to promote the voices of people that voters would be able to identify with.

If we are to look at the top Facebook posts during the UK 2019 Election from the political parties, the most watched was a BBC Question Time clip of a young Conservative voter which was watched 725,000 times. The top video produced by Labour was a slickly produced political broadcast that focused on Jeremy Corbyn rather than any celebrity endorsement. Both videos focused on the candidates themselves or non-celebrities, which suggests that voters were not interested in the videos of well-known names talking to a camera about why they were backing a political party or candidate.

Political parties spend a lot of money on these videos and other methods of digital advertising to reach voters, using sophisticated software to target exactly the type of person they are hoping will be persuaded with their message. Up until polling day in 2019, Labour spent £1.25m on paid-for Facebook ads compared to the Conservative Party’s £780,000.  This excludes the large sums of money that will also have been shared on Instagram and Google Ads.

Despite these eye-watering amounts, political parties have not completely given up on traditional forms of reaching their voters – through leaflets and knocking on doors. Whilst political parties are permitted to pay for leaflets to be delivered as long as it is included in their expenses, it is against the law for parties to pay people to canvass for votes. Instead, political parties draw on their most valuable asset – their activists.

In 2001, the two main parties spent nearly £3m on unsolicited mail to voters which was the second biggest expenditure after advertising. Jump forward to 2015 where parties spent £15m on unsolicited mail – which counts for nearly half of what they are legally allowed to spend during an election period. Yet only £1.7m was spent on advertising on social media platforms in that same period, a tiny sum in comparison. This shows that whilst social media has become huge in comparison to 20 years ago, parties still place huge value on getting the message through people’s letterboxes.  

Political parties have a unique benefit that many other organisations do not, which is access to the full, unedited electoral roll. This allows them to knock on the doors of their target audience and have a face-to-face conversationThe people who carry out this doorknocking exercise are most often party activists who live in that area, but frequently voters will find themselves talking to the candidate in that election. On some occasions, a voter may open the door and find themselves talking to a celebrity such as actor Ross Kemp, who campaigned in a number of marginal seats in the 2019 General Election for the Labour Party.

Formerly inaccessible celebrities who have been creating videos for political parties to share online, are now participating in the groundwork of knocking on doors. But does this work? Are voters convinced to vote for a political party based on what a celebrity is telling them, whether they are speaking to them through a lens from another place in time, or even when they’re standing right in front of them on their doorstep? After all, why would the opinion of a celebrity so far removed from the difficulties an ordinary person faces influence a person more than the opinions of their loved ones?

One piece of evidence that suggests that voters are more convinced by ordinary people who are like them is that correlation between a candidate being local and how well they do in a general election.

It has been documented time and time again that when given criteria on what would make them be more likely to vote for a candidate, voters rank ‘to be from the local area’ as either the most or second most important characteristic. With this in mind, why would voters add any value to the opinions of Russell Brand who spends most of his time across the Atlantic? Why would voters in Tennessee listen to Taylor Swift who primarily resides in New York and Rhode Island?

Political communications are often ‘one-way’, in that they are pre-planned videos, images or text going out on social media platforms with an attempt at persuasion to vote for their cause or candidate. These posts often rack up a huge amount of engagement through likes, shares, and comments. The latter are often incredibly mixed, with many being negative resulting in arguments between groups of people who vehemently disagree with each other. Not only are they fighting the battles of the political parties, they believe they are fighting for their way of life. Whether that’s on a pro or anti-immigration line, or about how much tax the wealthy should pay, or even whether a piece of news is factual or not.

There is one constant, and that is the person operating the political party social media account tends not to get involvedA political party throws a piece of news into the world and leaves the people to fight over its validity or importance. This is a huge contrast to the ground operation of canvassing, where the parties often have thousands of people knocking on doors all over the country in the run up to the election, collecting the data on how households are planning to vote in order to run a sophisticated, targeted ‘Get Out the Vote’ operation on election day.

It is through this activity that party activists are hearing what issues matter to local people. From the frequency of bin collections to international issues, this is the most effective way of collecting information that the party can use to inform its policies and approaches on a whole range of issues. It is also how political parties can find out how popular their leader is without needing to run expensive focus groups or commission professional polling.

It is this valuable information that enables local parties to then target voters with specific messaging both ahead of polling day and on the day that they cast their ballot. For example, on the  Stockton North constituency Labour campaign in 2019 on which I worked, regular Labour voters who cited Jeremy Corbyn as a reason why they were not voting Labour in the election were then targeted with a letter through the door from the local Labour candidate about why they should vote for him even if they disagreed with the party leadership. With the Labour majority in Stockton North coming down to just over 1000, these targeted letters won the election. No celebrities visited Stockton North despite it being expected to switch hands to the Conservatives, and the Labour campaign spent more resources promoting the ‘local candidate’ – and they won. Yet next door in Stockton South which received several high-profile celebrity visits, Labour lost the seat to the Conservatives.

Whether political parties and candidates will recognise the limitations of using celebrities as key endorsers or mouthpieces is yet to be seen, but earlier this week Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden shared a twitter post by Taylor Swift backing his campaign. The impact – or lack of impact – of Taylor’s endorsement for the Tennessee race has done nothing to deter other candidates from using her endorsement as a tool to promote their campaign. What the political parties choose to do with their millions at the next election and in the time until then is a decision for them.

But there is no evidence to suggest that current practice of spending money on creating and promoting endorsements of celebrities backing the party does anything to win over swing voters.

Using their funds to support activists in door-knocking activities, making meaningful use out of the data that has been collected, adapting party messaging using feedback from voters through canvassing, and putting local candidates and supporters front and centre of media activity is more likely to win over people than a celebrity whose life bears no resemblance of the ordinary person. As the United States gears into its most important Presidential race in a generation, candidates and their campaigns would do well to remember this in the final weeks.