US election: what impact do celebrity endorsements really have?

In one of the most astonishing U.S. elections in modern political history, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. Relying largely on opinion polls and over 1,000 celebrity endorsers, including Beyoncé and Katy Perry, election forecasters put Hilary Clinton’s chance of winning at 70% to 99%. Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama in 2008 increased the contributions received by Obama, and an estimated 1 million additional votes. So what role did celebrity endorsement play?

Use of celebrities in politics

Historians have traced the role of celebrities in politics back to the 1920 U.S. election, when Lillian Russell and other film stars endorsed Warren Harding. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was endorsed by Rat Pack members Sammy Davis junior and Dean Martin. More recently, Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney supported Barack Obama. Actor Clint Eastwood, endorsed Republicans John McCain in 2008 and Donald Trump this time around.

Who endorsed who?

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been endorsed by an army of celebrity supporters. Some of Clinton’s high-profile endorsers were LeBron James, Meryl Streep, Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham, and Snoop Dogg. In contrast, Trump’s supporters were less well-known and included Azealia Banks, Tom Brady, Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan, and Scott Baio.

Hilary’s celebrity endorsers had a greater social media reach and made powerful statements such as Elizabeth Banks’ Fight Song or the star-studded Avengers cast’s oblique but powerful statement against Trump.

Celebrities sell

One in five ads globally features a celebrity. Marketers spend millions on celebrity endorsers to leverage “secondary brand associations” – that is, people transfer their opinions and feelings about a celebrity to the brand (e.g., Beyonce and Pepsi – worth US$50 million).

In a cluttered world where myriad messages fight for the attention of time-starved consumers, celebrity endorsers serve as arbiters of public opinion. Marketers rely on symbolic and emotional features to generate “sociopsychological associations”. Some celebrities are so aspirational that even a glimpse of them in an ad conveys positive meaning (e.g., Cristiano Ronaldo).

In order to transfer positive meaning, the celebrity, should have the following traits:

attractiveness (physique, intellect, athleticism, lifestyle);

credibility (expertise, trustworthiness); and

meaning transfer (compatibility between brand and celebrity).

Quite often, celebrities use their high profile to promote causes, like singer Bono’s One campaign against poverty.

Celebrity endorsements in politics makes sense

We know celebrities grab and hold consumer attention. Yet, expertise and credibility are important elements when wanting to influence consumers. Interestingly, people consider celebrities to be more credible and trustworthy than politicians.

Young people believe celebrities have an effect on the way people think – more than politicians, scientists or academics. Exit polls of 24,537 respondents in the 2016 U.S. election showed that the 18-29 year old segment was the smallest (12%) with 55% voting for Clinton, while 53% of 45-64 year olds, the largest segment (40%) voted for Trump. Outside of age, ethnicity and gender affect celebrity endorsement influence. Of the surveyed women, 54% voted for Clinton, and 53% of men voted for Trump. Most of the surveyed voters were White (70%) and of those, 58% voted for Trump, while most of the Black (88%), Latino (65%) and Asian voters (65%) voted for Clinton. On the whole, Clinton received a higher number of overall votes (47.8%), however, due to the Electoral College system, Trump was elected president.

Effectiveness and audience

A key difference in the 2016 U.S. election was that Trump was also a celebrity in his own right. People’s experience of his public persona through his roles on TV has over time instilled a specific meaning which was transferred to his political campaign. Furthermore, Trump had a clear message centred on change, with an anti-establishment bent. In contrast, Clinton embodied the establishment and was considered untrustworthy due to accusations during her time as Secretary of State and her family’s charity the Clinton Foundation.

So what’s the final verdict?

Having the endorsement of celebrities is not enough. There has to be a match-up (or compatibility) between the celebrity and the brand (or politician). For instance the Hu collection, by Pharrell Williams and Adidas Originals, has the necessary credible context. On the other hand, Scarlett Johannson’s endorsement of Sodastream failed to solidify the relationship while losing Johannson her Oxfam ambassador position.

With the right celebrity endorsements, political campaigns can do quite well. However, they need to establish a clear connection between the politician and celebrity endorsing them. Otherwise, the message comes across as disingenuous and irrelevant at best.