Hollywood is back in force at the White House.
When Elton John appeared last Friday night in Washington, DC, his performance wasn’t just emblematic of his philanthropic work for HIV/AIDS — for which President Joe Biden honored the entertainer with the National Humanities Medal. It was also a reminder that big star power and advocacy is returning to the nation’s capital.
“Once in a lifetime, the long-awaited tidal wave of justice may rise, and hope and history rhyme,” Biden said., quoting Seamus Heaney. “Throughout his incredible career, Sir Elton John has been that tidal wave, a tidal wave to help people rise up and bring hope and history together.”
John’s performance is among several celebrity sightings at the White House since Biden took office in 2021. Olivia Rodrigo met with Biden last summer to help promote COVID-19 vaccines to young people. BTS joined a White House press briefing this spring to speak out against anti-Asian hate crimes during AAPI Heritage Month. Matthew McConaughey has made an impassioned plea for an end to gun violence after a mass shooting in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas.
The ultimate goal of these appearances is to influence a wider audience than would normally pay attention to the president. Stars and social media personalities can use their platform to create bigger buzz than regular politicians, but it can also help their own brand – when done right, experts say.
But are these partnerships translating into real change? It depends on the situation – and who you ask.
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Why do celebrities visit the White House?
Along with Rodrigo, BTS and McConaughey, Selena Gomez stopped by the Nation’s Capital in May to promote a partnership between the White House and MTV to address the growing youth mental health crisis. Ciara, Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie and the Jonas Brothers have also traveled to the White House to champion various causes.
“When celebrities start injecting themselves into political discourse in the media, they are much more likely to draw attention to this issue than any normal politician, sometimes even the president,” says Mark Harvey, director from the University of St. Mary’s MBA program and the author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy.”
A celebrity’s political involvement can also give them a boost if they take the time to properly educate themselves or have a personal connection to the issue, which is why many gave McConaughey credit. partial for helping Congress pass the largest gun safety package in three decades after his tearful speech from the press conference room podium.
“Things like identity are important,” Harvey says. “So LGBTQ issues with people like Elton John or Ellen DeGeneres are, unsurprisingly, far more believable than most politicians.”
Stars with big platforms may also feel morally obligated to talk about issues they believe in. But, according to Harvey, the rules governing when a celebrity is able to speak out on hot topics have been “rewritten in the last eight years”. a few years” thanks to changes in industry contracts, the continuous news cycle and social media.
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How celebrities’ relationship with politics has changed over time
Almost a century ago, in the Golden Age of Hollywood, artists were considered just that: artists. Studios largely controlled an actor’s brand, and many contracts included morality clauses that prohibited stars from doing or saying anything that might negatively affect the studio.
The Beatles marked a turning point in the industry’s approach to celebrities speaking out on political issues, Harvey says. They “became absolutely so huge that nobody could do anything without their say, so they started pleading. Basically saying things like ‘we’re not going to play in the South unless it’s an integrated arena . “”
From this point on, contracts began to loosen and LA and DC began to blend more hesitantly: Al Jolson played for the presidential campaigns of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s; Harry Belafonte and others involved in the 1963 March on Washington; and Elvis Presley met Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.
At the turn of the century, the rise of cable television, the Internet, and social media changed the pace of the news cycle, forcing news slots to be filled and content to be created that generates clicks.
Barack Obama’s campaign and administration were filled with celebrities.
“Young voters carried Obama to power,” says Andy Bernstein, co-founder and executive director of the nonpartisan voter registration organization HeadCount. Obama tapped into young people’s interest by inviting social media stars, including YouTubers Tyler Oakley, Ingrid Nilsen and GloZell Green, to the Oval Office.
Despite being a celebrity in his own right, Trump’s tenure in the White House has resulted in less engagement from big stars. Ye and Kid Rock made high-profile visits to the White House during this time, but Kim Kardashian was an exception. She met repeatedly with Trump and his advisers to draw attention to criminal justice reform.
“It was a win-win situation for both parties,” says crisis management and branding expert Holly Baird. “If (Kardashian) can use her notoriety for justice, her fans should rally behind her and support this cause.”
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Biden draws power from the stars – but does it work?
Biden’s inauguration brought together dozens of today’s hottest celebrities: Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, John Legend and Bruce Springsteen and more. It was a foreshadowing of the many visits to come, but the jury is still out on whether those relationships bolstered his credibility.
Beyond the A-listers, Biden has also harnessed the star power of social media. As the definition of “celebrity” continues to grow in the digital space, it makes sense that the types of stars recognized by the White House will also grow, notes Baird.
Last year, the White House briefed several TikTokers on pressing issues such as the war in Ukraine, shortages of baby formula this summer, and high gas prices.
Other Gen Z favorites, like Rodrigo, who visited the White House to promote vaccines, turned young people’s heads, but Bernstein questions whether the White House was the “best place for that message.”
“The problem with vaccine hesitancy is that vaccines are politicized,” he says. “So by whatever politicizes these posts, you lose about half the audience. … When you have an agenda, everything you say is suspect.”
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The question of Hollywood’s place in government comes down to influence: when and how can celebrities best participate in the political conversation in a way that really makes a difference?
“Celebrities are so much a part of the ecosystem and the political system itself has changed so much that consumers are making new demands on these celebrities to the degree that they expect. It’s no longer enough for celebrities to stay out. of that and keep people entertained,” adds Bernstein. “It’s accepted and expected for people to take sides. And sometimes you get punished for not taking sides.”
On the other hand, taking sides isn’t always good for a celebrity’s brand. Remember Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers too” line? Conversely, some artists who embraced right-wing views felt “outcast and unemployed,” notes Baird.
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Speaking out on issues such as abortion or gun control may not easily sway others if the star does not have a compelling and ongoing connection to the cause, although it has the potential to strengthen their personal brand among those who share the same beliefs. But experts say people in the middle or outside of political engagement can benefit from celebrities making political issues more accessible.
“If we want young people to be passionate about democracy…a great way to reach them is through culture,” Bernstein said. “When we can reach the fans of these artists, and when the artists themselves stamp their approval on civic participation, it means so much more than any politician or any campaign.”
But, as Baird notes, Hollywood is famous for believing “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Ultimately, fans “will rally behind people they can believe in and can relate to.”
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