Here’s the question: How much is too much to pay a celebrity for a day’s work for one of the UK’s oldest charities? There are lots of factors – how A-list are they, what they will need to do, how ‘deep’ will they need to get into the issues – but go on, take a punt. A grand? £5,000 maybe, tops? Higher? £10,000 plus expenses? It’s not often my mind is boggled, but boggled it was today when my colleague came off the phone to breathlessly relay that a (we’ll leave her tactfully unnamed) singer in a high profile girl band charges £50,000 for a day’s work. One day. And those are her ‘charity rates’. Yeah, turns out the charity doesn’t have that kind of money, or anything even stratospherically near it. And if it did, would you, dear donor, be happy with them spending it on a mediocre singer with a penchant for bodycon dresses? I thought not.
The newly-googly-loving Liz Hurley once referred to non-celebrities as ‘civilians’, much to the eye-rolling of people who purport to loathe ‘her type’ but elbow innocent bystanders out of the way at the supermarket magazine rack to buy 150 pages of glossy tosh to go with one’s stuffed pasta and Chardonnay of an eve. I’m not excluding myself from this beautiful image. Lord knows it’s a contradiction for my otherwise rational mind, but if celebrities didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent them; for how else can we possibly sell crap we don’t need, to people who don’t want it, for companies we have never heard of?
In recent years, the not-for-profit sector have been quick to recognise the brand enhancement of working with celebrities too, catapulting unsexy campaign issues into the mainstream by placing interviews and photos with ‘committed sleb’ into parts of the paper that wouldn’t touch the charity with a barge pole before. So far, so contrived, but brand recognition equates donations, and no charity – large or small – can argue with the maths in these austere times. And underpinning this? Well, charities are obsessed with celebrities for one very simple reason…. because we are. Thanks to the dreadful tosh in the supermarket magazine rack. Ad infinitum, ad infinitum.
So it’s with a heavy heart that at the end of this year, I recall the number of times I have gone through the mill of celebrity recommendations for my imperfect but often brilliant clients. Charities, public sector, private sector with honourable intentions – all with good deeds up their sleeve, but as many a journalist has grumbled to me, ‘worthy isn’t newsworthy’, and it’s even less so if you haven’t recruited a celebrity. This isn’t about ruddy good people who happen to be famous and give half a damn about an issue close to their heart – and they do exist – this is about significantly less good people who view charitable work as an extension of their money-making portfolio career.
I don’t blame charities for recruiting celebrities, and some do it brilliantly, positively and with notable affect, like Annie Lennox for Amnesty International, and Lily Cole for Christian Aid who last month went out to a refugee village in Burma. But some don’t – like when Dappy from N-Dubz fronted the DCSF BeatBullying campaign and within the same week was questioned for sending intimidating texts to a BBC Radio 1 listener after she complained about his ‘stupid hat’. It’s often the case that the bigger the fee, the bigger the ego and the bigger the reputational risk for the charity involved. Increasingly, the celebrity will bounce back from their outlandish behaviour (see Kate Moss and her little coke habit) but the charity won’t. Donors have a long memory, consumers don’t.
Some argue that the celebrity market is increasingly squeezed, where big charities command the most high profile celebrities to their more polite causes, and the smaller charities going where most people daren’t tread get pushed out of the picture altogether. I think this is the least of our problems – the real issue is that with increasing reliance on celebrities to tell our most complex and important stories, like domestic violence, rape, animal welfare, climate change, mental health, the list goes on, we lose out on the most compelling stories of all – our own.
So in 2011, if I could make it happen, I would veto celebrity involvement for the not-for-profit sector. Go back to basics, work with the real stars, the ‘civilians’: the men, women, children and animals who bring your programmes to life. Hell, the papers might not write about you, and you may feel that harnessing a celebrity gives you coverage you just can’t buy, but with the £50,000 saving you’ll make turning down the girl band member, you probably can.
And as for the celebrities? Maybe those chronically out of work as a result could start a charity: for celebrities who are chronically out of work. I’m sure, if we rang around, we could get a great name to front it for a couple of grand…