What do a former Olympian, a football manager, and plastic pollution in Africa have in common? It may sound like the setup of a complicated joke -- but in reality, the answer is, not enough to warrant a charity campaign.
This week, Channel 4 aired the latest episode of "Dispatches," its flagship investigative documentary series. The episode, titled Celebs for Sale: The Great Charity Scandal, saw reporter Antony Barnett go undercover in order to seek endorsements for Cleaning Up Plastic Pollution in Africa (Cuppa, a common idiom for 'a cup of tea'), a completely fabricated charity, with the aim of clarifying the opacity of charities’ spending habits and celebrity endorsements.
Using hidden cameras, journalists filmed celebrity booking agents discussing contracts for over GBP19,500 on behalf of reality star Caitlin Jenner (as well as British football manager Harry Redknapp), on the understanding that she would do one Instagram post and appear in a photoshoot endorsing the fictional charity.
Jenner duly posted a picture on Instagram to her 10 million followers, wearing a Cuppa-branded t-shirt, and holding a mug with the "company logo" on it. There was no mention that this was a sponsored post, no mention of the almost £20,000 she had taken from the charity, and no mention of the research she had surely done on this company before she publicly endorsed it.
This is all despite the fact that Instagram’s own policy requires its users to disclose when an exchange of value between an individual and a business partner has taken place in return for a post.
The organic reach of a celebrity endorsement should never be underestimated, and working with influencers who have an active digital presence is becoming an increasingly popular way for charities to reach an otherwise-elusive and engaged market -- when done in the right way. It’s always better to have people talk about you than for you to talk about yourself.
The added bonus of using celebrities is that they don’t only bring with them a voice, but also a vast audience that is more than willing to listen. For this reason, it can often be difficult to determine the worth of this kind of endorsement, which is perhaps why paying GBP19,500 for an image of Caitlyn Jenner in a branded t-shirt may seem legitimate to a well-meaning charity looking to raise awareness.
Regardless of what went on in this specific case, it is no secret that brands regularly pay big names over the odds based on their follower count, instead of actual engagement rates or their performance in previous campaigns.
While this is, of course, a big problem for the brands themselves, the issue of money exchanging hands for collaborations becomes even more profound when it comes to the promotion of charitable endeavours. This is because, when one sees a celebrity backing a charity, we immediately assume that they are doing just that -- being charitable.
We also take it for granted that these public figures are putting their name to a cause they truly believe in, not merely attempting to profit off the back of a good cause. This doesn’t mean that all charitable work need always be done on a pro bono basis, but certainly, when the endorsement takes place on social media, it needs to at the very least adhere to the advertising guidelines of that platform.
The moral of this story for celebrities, then, is to only endorse things that they are passionate about and for charity marketing teams it is to prioritise an authentic connection between the celebrity and the cause being championed, over the size of an individual’s online following, in order to ensure the success of a campaign -- and save themselves a whole lot of money!
What the celebrities involved in this sting also lacked was the services of a responsible mediator. By forming all partnerships through an authoritative and knowledgeable third party, adept at brokering relationships in the interest of all involved, any potential embarrassments can be mitigated.
Indeed, Cuppa would have been exposed as a shell company had Jenner gone through these means. As it was, the fake charity instead succeeded in meeting Jenner in her Malibu home -- and spun a story that pulled the credibility of her personal brand into question.
While Channel 4’s embarrassing exposé may temporarily deter celebrities from publicising charitable endorsements, it should not spell the end. As long as public figures represent causes they are passionate about, and are transparent in doing so, all parties can avoid being the butt of the joke.