By Soo Min Jeong
What is the similarity among the following people?—Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and Sir Richard Branson. Not only are they world renowned celebrities, but they also actively utilize their popularity, talents, and media exposure to raise awareness of humanitarian issues. Some participate in philanthropic campaigns, volunteer activities, and directly donate money to non-governmental organizations. Recently, the number of celebrities who demonstrate interest in humanitarian issue has increased. As a result, the Time Magazine coined a new term describing these type of celebrities: “Celanthropist,” the combination of the words “Philanthropist” and “Celebrity.”
Charities seek relationships with celebrities because of their ability to raise public awareness and promote donations. While the most common way of celebrities participate in charity is directly donating money to foundations, celebrities can be spokespersons, board members, or even founders of charities. Angelina Jolie, an Oscar-winning actress, is the best example of celebrity who spends a great deal of time doing extensive humanitarian work. Jolie has not only supported over twenty charities but was also appointed as a UNHCR Goodwill ambassador and founded the Maddox Jolie-Pitt foundation in 2003.
As Jolie’s active role in the promotion of human right issues demonstrates, philanthropic activities of celebrities are prevalent. Even though these celanthropists are often praised for drawing individuals into donations and giving sense of local or global community, they are also harshly criticized by some scholars. Critics argue that celebrities turn charities into “Charitainment,” perverting philanthropy into acts of consumption and leisure. The commercialization of philanthropy separates problems from the real root causes, merely demonstrating the superficial aspect of philanthropy. Therefore, governments only feel the necessity of covering up problems, so they become irresponsible for resolving broader political, cultural, and social causes of human rights issues. Furthermore, some scholars claim that instead of condemning human rights violations by multinational corporations, celanthropy rather promotes the consumption of “good cause.” In short, celanthropy treats capitalism as an answer, not a cause for global problems.
Granted, indiscriminate use of celebrity in philanthropy may taint the true meaning and deceive the general public with oversimplified images of philanthropy. However, it does not mean that celebrities in charities are totally ineffective. According to a study conducted by Baxter and Ilicic, celanthropy indeed promotes positive images of celebrity, charity organization, and even donation intention; it encourages charitable donation. In addition, celebrities further take roles in international policy-making. For example, Midge Ure and Bob Gelof’s Live Aid and Live 8 raised not only millions of dollars for food aid but also caused the G8 to address debt relief, HIV/AIDS, and other humanitarian crises to the global audience. Another case of a celebrity bringing positive outcomes is Pu Cunxin, a Chinese actor, in light of HIV/AIDS awareness projects. Ever since HIV was detected in the mid-1980, the contagious virus has rapidly spread throughout China. However, local governments inadequately implemented policies that are greatly differed from one province to another. Furthermore, the general public was uninformed about transmission and cause of the disease. This vacuum of knowledge sparked panic and fear, and ignorance further led to violent discrimination against HIV positive Chinese. This hostility disappeared when Pu Cunxin started HIV/AIDS activism and advocacy. His activism promoted various awareness projects and made government to produce educational materials, such as pamphlets, articles, and comics. Furthermore, the government used to conduct confidential HIV tests, but his popularity and activism brought the socially concealed disease to light.
Celanthropy may be problematic at times, but it is clear that it can also have positive outcomes. Because of its effectiveness, a number of non-profit organizations around the world implement philanthropic programs which feature celebrities. One example is “The Philanthropists,” a non-profit organization founded by Korean students. The organization aims to promote strategic and sustainable social development. Every year, the organization hosts “The Philanthropic Concert,” which consists of performances by artists who showcase their talent for free. Through the concert, “The Philanthropists” tries to implement celanthropy and further develop a charitable culture in Korea. All the profit goes to resolve humanitarian problems, and last summer, the organization raised approximately three thousand dollars to help Syrian refugees by providing water purifications tablets.
Celebrities are becoming more active in charities, and media is widely used to promote philanthropy. This mere commercialization of charity through media can taint the true meaning of charitable act. However, regardless of a few drawbacks, studies are showing that celanthropy indeed yields positive outcomes—it promotes donations and positive attitude toward charities. Therefore, celanthropy has been widely accepted by non-governmental organizations, and will likely remain a mainstay of international and domestic philanthropy for the foreseeable future.