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How Celebrity Endorsements Might (This Year) Be A US Election Game-Changer

From Lizzo and Taylor Swift to Beyonce and The Rock, endorsements for Joe Biden have been free-flowing. But do voters care?

Celebrities muscling in on politics is nothing new, and certainly not Stateside, where the line between politics and entertainment has often been blurred.

JFK was as much of a celebrity as he was a politician, and Ronald Reagan and Trump, arguably the world’s biggest reality TV star, both became famous in front of the camera before they took their seat behind the desk in the Oval Office.

But given all the A-List celebrities that supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, we all know how that turned out. So what went wrong?

“I think the whole celebrity endorsement on political campaigns has slightly been undone,” says PR expert Mark Borkowski.

Referencing Clinton’s 2006 campaign, he says: “You couldn’t move for Beyonces, Jay Z’s, Bruce Springteens, and it had absolutely no impact. The glamour of a celebrity picking up on a political cause has actually devalued over the last ten to fifteen years. Call it the Bono factor if you like. I don’t think there is the same trust.”

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined by Jon Bon Jovi during campaigning in 2016 - but for little reward.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined by Jon Bon Jovi during campaigning in 2016 - but for little reward.

However, despite the failure of Clinton’s campaign, Adrienne Elrod, Biden’s Director of Surrogate Strategy in charge of working with celebrities and influencers for the campaign, believes that celebs can still be incredibly powerful endorsements for politicians - and could be game changers this time around.

Joe Biden’s campaign may feel less ostentatious than Clinton’s, but there are still plenty of stars backing the democrat candidate. Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, The Rock, Lady Gaga, Kristen Bell and Billie Eilish are just a few of the A-list names to have expressed their support for Biden.

“They feel a different sense of duty and responsibility to get involved in a more heightened way this cycle: In 2016 we’d never lived under four years of Trump, right?” laments Adrienne.

“There’s no dollar figure that you can put on the significance of an authentic endorsement.”

One of the reasons things could be very different this time around is that social media has been used in a more comprehensive and targeted way than ever before.

Although a handful of celebrities including Magic Johnson, Lizzo and Kerry Washington have gone out on the road in the final few weeks of the campaign, most of this year’s campaigning has been done virtually.

Adrienne says Instagram Lives with the likes of Miley Cyrus and online conversations between Biden and stars like The Rock have been fundamental.

“He has significant reach with voters who are not watching CNN every single day like I am,” says Adrienne of The Rock’s involvement. “You cannot buy that with paid media, there’s no dollar figure that you can put on the significance of an authentic endorsement like that.

“There’s no comparison in terms of the effectiveness of how that resonates, helps us bring in new voters and helps validate us with constituents who might be on the fence, undecided in this election, or might even be Trump supporters.”

Endorsements focus their reach on key swing states like Florida, where convincing a few thousand more people to go out and vote can potentially change the result of the election.

A-Rod and Jennifer Lopez have been campaigning toward the Latino and Cuban communities in The Sunshine State. “Two very important sectors of the Floridian vote,” says Adrienne. “That’s going to help us hopefully push us over the edge to victory.”

But just how hard is it to measure the effect of such endorsements? It’s certainly easier than four years ago.

Despite challenges, technological advancements such as Instagram Live that didn’t exist during the Clinton campaign (which Adrienne also worked on), alongside new tracking technologies have made the process of targeting voters using celeb endorsements more clear cut.

Tech means Adrienne and her team can now track the number of followers that somebody has regionally: determining how many of them are US based, and where they are located when it comes to each state. “That has been very helpful,” says Adrienne.

Commenting on the rise of Instagram Lives she says: “We’re not just asking a celebrity to introduce a candidate at an event, we’re actually saying, ‘Hey Deborah Messing, let’s do an Instagram Live that you host, and through you we will bring in your followers into the campaign.’” Adrienne says around 10-15 daily live social media experiences are available with celebrities as part of the Team Joe Talks initiative.

Adrienne Elrod
Adrienne Elrod

Adrienne explains how she works with celebrities: “We educate them on how to vote, we will make sure they have a firm understanding of the candidate’s policies, we will make sure they understand how to encourage their network to volunteer for the campaign, and that is such an important, invaluable asset we’re able to bring in to the campaign through their followers.”

Rob Blackie, political strategist, agrees that celebrities have the potential to cut through to audiences that politicians can’t reach.

“A politician saying something isn’t going to be heard by or influence swing voters, or flaky voters who don’t turn out,” he tells HuffPost UK.

Most of this group won’t watch or read traditional news. But if Kim Kardashian talks about Armenian politics or Taylor Swift talks about American politics, they’ll see on Instagram, TikTok or Facebook. This group may be influenced to change their point of view of a politician through which celebrity they are associated with.”

Antara Chowdhury, who runs a celebrity fanzine with a particular focus on Taylor Swift, has watched some of this year’s Biden endorsements and personally acknowledges the effectiveness of celebrities partnering with political campaigns.

I would have been heartbroken if the artist I most admire, the one I have spent so much time, energy, and money on, turned out to support politicians or policies that help uphold social inequalities,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“I was therefore ecstatic when Taylor broke her political silence in 2018, outlined her beliefs that she bases her vote on, and endorsed a candidate for the first time. It means a lot to me that she has continued to speak up about gender equality, LGBT rights, systemic racism, and police brutality over the past two years.”

Taylor Swift has advocated for Biden
Taylor Swift has advocated for Biden

But Antara calls out generic ‘remember to vote!’ messaging in favour of more constructed, specific advice.

What is helpful is providing specific information, linking to resources, and including calls to action,” she says.I like that Taylor has a “vote” tab right at the top of her website which directs you to voting resources. She also sent out a “Vote” card with merch orders that contains a QR code bringing you to the same link.”

Tasnim, who runs a Queer Eye fan page, agrees. “Honestly, anyone speaking about political engagement in general is encouraging,” she says of the show’s stars Tan France and Jonathan Van Ness, who have been vocal on social media in their support for Biden.

“Even if it doesn’t align with my political views, because it makes politics and political engagement seem fun and cool rather than boring and complex, which is a popular opinion among a lot of young people.”

Jasmine thinks “non newspaper reading individuals” are the likeliest to buy into endorsements from the Queer Eye set. That cohort may include sceptics and those bored with the mainstream media coverage and looking for an alternative take. “I have seen on many occasions Jonathan correcting misinformation that is out there,” says Jasmine.

Tan France has supported Biden
Tan France has supported Biden

Speaking out can be good PR for celebrities - but the risk can also be high. In 2020, Taylor Swift’s Netflix film Miss Americana captured well the anxieties and stresses a celebrity goes through before ‘coming out’ in support of a political party.

The film documented the months before the singer first spoke out against the Republican party in 2018. Some of her team strongly advised her against it. Would she alienate the scores of Republican voters that helped her rise as a country star in her formative years? She spoke out anyway - and when celebrities take bigger risks in order to stand forward, it can feel even more powerful, says Tasnim from the Queer Eye fan account.

“It is particularly uplifting when the Queer Eye cast vocalise their opinions as they represent not only a marginalised community but they share deeply personal experiences relating to immigration, race and the flawed healthcare system, which celebrities stay away from mentioning,” she says.

Responding to Tan France’s latest support for Biden she said: “Tan France recently posted a Instagram story after endorsing Joe Biden, saying many people were unfollowing him and his reaction was pretty much good riddance. He was not going to stop speaking up against an administration that has and continues to target groups of people who are already discriminated against socially and economically.”

Coming out in support of Trump, of course, is potential career suicide. Kanye West, the most mainstream of his supporters, has since retracted his endorsement. Other than Kanye, those supporting the president publicly have been few and far between, typically relatively minor reality show stars or musicians.

Given how Hillary Clinton’s campaign went, Trump may not care about having a stampede of Hollywood support.

But with the advent of new technologies making it easier for campaigners to track the effectiveness of celebrity endorsements, Biden’s star-dusted campaign may be the silver bullet that future-proofs the effectiveness of advanced social media platforms to bring people out to vote.

Trump may be America’s biggest reality TV star - but if current predictions ring true, Biden’s cohort of famous faces may well be the headline news come November 3rd.

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