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Philanthrotainment: The Branding of Compassion

Does celebrity activism motivate the masses—or merely glamorize giving?

by Devin Thomas

Bono wants to save the world—and he wants you to help him. All you have to do is buy a (Product) Red Motorola cell phone. When you do, a portion of your money will go to the Global Fund, an account established in 2002 to increase resources for fighting AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. In fact, the musician and U2 frontman—working with a growing list of corporate partners-in-arms such as The Gap, American Express, Hallmark, and Emporio Armani—wants you to help save the world so much that over $100 million dollars have been spent advertising the (Product) Red campaign. But since its launch, the initiative has netted a meager $38 million in sales—much less than half of its advertising overhead—while encouraging a giving philosophy that promotes individual consumerism rather than collective compassion.

Of course, Bono is charitably active in other ways; he co-founded DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), a group focused on raising awareness about issues facing Africa. And he’s certainly not the first celebrity to wear an advocacy sandwich board and ring a fundraising bell: from George Clooney to Mia Farrow and Paris Hilton to Oprah, celebrity philanthropy has stepped into the mainstream spotlight. But can all this attention actually benefit non-profits, not to mention those in need?

Some instances show it can. Celebrities who endorse a cause or campaign bring to non-profits not only attention, but, in some cases, financial donations from eager fans. In 2005, for instance, actor Brad Pitt convinced television news reporter Diane Sawyer to cover his work in Africa with the ONE Campaign, an international crusade to end global AIDS and poverty. As a result, the group logged a 560% increase in online donations.1 And after actress Natalie Portman mentioned her activism on behalf of microfinance—an economic strategy that provides low-income clients with access to credit—in a Vogue cover story, the United Nations’ Year of Microcredit program reported a flood of interest from “young influentials” wanting to support the cause.2

In much the same way, Christian charities rely on famous faces to promote their work. World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, employs a manager of “corporate partnerships and celebrity engagements,” and musician Steven Curtis Chapman serves as its spokesperson. Compassion International, a Christian child advocacy ministry, solicits musicians to join its “Independent Artist Network,” a group of Christian performers—including Rebecca St. James, Amy Grant, and Michael W. Smith—who visibly support the organization’s work.

In the face of all this philanthrotainment, it’s easy to become jaded and cynical. Watching People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” walk hand-in-hand with starving children may blind us to the true brutality and mercilessness of poverty. And hearing about how a pop star generously contributed millions to a cause—while still driving her top-of-the-line Mercedes and jet-setting from Milan to L.A.—can leave us with the false perception that giving is a glamorous endeavor requiring little to no sacrifice on our part. So how should we—as Christians called to “look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27)—respond?

The Bible reminds us that God often uses ordinary people to accomplish great deeds. David confronted Goliath while the “celebrity” warriors of his day cowered in their tents; Gideon and his tiny, under-resourced army overcame the might of the Midianites; Elijah challenged the king’s prophets; a child offered his lunch to feed 5,000; a widow offered her mite when it was all she had to live on. The dominant narrative in both the Old and New Testament recounts faithful but lowly people who made a difference for God, and culminates in the greatest representation of modest servanthood: an almighty Savior who took on human flesh, who lived among the poor and the downtrodden, who dined with tax collectors and prostitutes. Reflecting on these acts of selfless giving strips away the glitz and glamour, laying bare the suffering of the world and calling all of us—celebrity or otherwise—to respond with humility, compassion, and love.

1. http://tinyurl.com/5q8yqx

2. http://tinyurl.com/5kg3z4

This article originally appeared in the fall 2008 issue of In Part magazine.
Devin Thomas

Devin Thomas returned as the Communications intern to the BIC General Church offices this summer after living in north Philadelphia for nine months.

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