The fires expose celebrity faultlines

| January 15, 2020

Australia’s bushfire disaster has generated overwhelming donations as a result of celebrities using their status and recognition to call attention to the issue and encourage public involvement.

But the connection of the bushfire disaster with climate change is also increasing scrutiny of celebrities and their endorsements.

Tennis ace Roger Federer was this week forced to respond to climate activist and School Strike for Climate leader Greta Thunberg over his support for banking giant Credit Suisse, which is closely linked to the fossil fuels industry.

Federer, who will headline a fundraising exhibition in Melbourne this week in aid of bushfire relief, issued the response following targeted protests against Credit Suisse at their offices globally and the hashtag #RogerWakeUpNow trending on Twitter.

Monash Associate Professor of Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Economics Jasmina Ilicic, who last year published research on ‘the influence of co-branding authenticity in cause-related marketing‘, says Federer is in a tricky position.

“His response was quite ambiguous, but it had to be, criticising the company may put him in breach of contract, and it could also destroy his credibility with current and potential future sponsors, and endorsements are where the bulk of his wealth comes from.

But his response, Assoc Prof Ilicic says, hits all the right ‘brand rescue’ notes – touching on his personal connection and concern regarding the issue ‘as a father of four’ and aiming to be relatable and authentic.

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It’s authenticity that really strikes a chord with audiences in these situations, which is why comedian Celeste Barber’s online bushfire fundraiser topped more than $50 million in just a matter of days.

“There was no politics in it, just genuine fear for communities and the nation. By highlighting her personal connection to the issue, people were not sceptical of her motives. She’s also perceived as highly likeable, credible, and authentic. That’s why the fundraiser has gained so much support.”

Contrast this with Kylie Jenner who posted about the death of a billion animals in the fires, while later posting a picture of her Louis Vuitton mink slippers.

“That caused a lot of backlash,” said Assoc Prof Ilicic. “It’s a perfect example of how out of touch she is with the issue, which made her post about animals appear insincere and caused consumers to question her motives.”

Consumers will perceive celebrities as trying to cash in on the tragedy in terms of their own image and reputation if their efforts are not seen as genuine, she said.

Other celebrities including Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett used the recent Golden Globe awards to call for climate action in the wake of the fires.

Orange is the New Black actor, Australian Yael Stone also announced she was giving up her green card and would now work only in Australia due to the environmental impact of living across two continents.

But Assoc Prof Ilicic says making the climate change connection with the fires could, in some cases, be detrimental in convincing people to act.

“Climate change is still controversial and is still a political issue.

“People are donating to communities clearly in need having seen horrifying vision of towns and animals destroyed by flames, they aren’t donating to climate change action, some may not even believe in climate change. Sometimes leaving out the controversial can have more impact on a broader scale.”

But a growing swell of climate activism following the bushfires could put more companies like Credit Suisse, along with the celebs who endorse them, under the spotlight for their support of fossil fuels.

It’s a trend we started seeing during the marriage equality debate, says Assoc Prof Ilicic.

“Many brands came out in support of marriage equality and are positioning themselves on other societal or political issues,” she said.

Ultimately, she believes, Federer’s existing reputation for being genuine and authentic will save him from serious damage over the Suisse issue.

“I think his existing positive reputation will buffer him somewhat from impacts of the Suisse commentary.”

This article was published by Lens.