Features & Analysis

Charities in the quicksands of celebrity endorsement


Scarlett Johansson at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con International in San Diego, California; Author: Gage Skidmore

Scarlett Johansson at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con International in San Diego, California (Author: Gage Skidmore)

Using celebrities as part of marketing communication strategy is fairly common practice among companies worldwide and it has been rapidly adopted by charities and international organizations. More and more celebrities of every kind are becoming committed allies of every possible cause.

Having a celebrity supporting a cause can be exalting, but sometimes, it can become a liability. The most eloquent example is the recent controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s ditching her Oxfam ambassadorship to become the first international endorser of the Israeli company SodaStream that operates one of its factories in an Israeli West Bank settlement.

The matter above not only that raised a heated debate over ScarJo’s sudden decision to give up her role as humanitarian after eight years in favor of some extra bucks, but also the question of whether charities should revise their criteria set in place when choosing who endorses their causes. Beyond the geopolitical and religious matters involved, the actress’ decision is a blow to credibility for both, Oxfam and her. One might argue that the Avengers’star has a little more to lose for letting herself caught in an issue way beyond her understanding. SodaStream’s move to get her on board might prove to be a harmful also for the company on long-term. If most of the public was unaware of the human rights violations involving the company, one could say it is not the case anymore and its customers might have a second thought before buying its products, no matter how green they are. Bloomberg already reported a 3.3% drop in SodaStream (NASDAQ: SODA) shares on the first trading day after the Super Bowl, something that might show the investors were not pleased with the company’s move.

For SodaStream the reason to get a celebrity endorsement it’s as clear as a business reason can be. The company’s CEO complained in early January about the company failing to deliver its profit targets and about a disappointing fourth quarter performance,” according to Forbes. Its shares plummeted more than 20% in morning trading hitting a 52-week low of $38.55, after the company announced preliminary, unaudited 2013 earnings results.  No wonder they have chosen a high ranked celebrity as Johansson to endorse their products.

Fragile Credibility

The most important reason brands and charities choose to chase celebrity endorsement is their credibility which shows the recommended product, or service, or, in the case of charities, cause is worth the trust of the public.  But, how fit was Scarlett Johansson for the role of Oxfam’s ambassador to start with? Was she worth the trust of the public? Was she fully aware of the values and principles Oxfam is defending? She’s been an ambassador for eight years and one can assume she knew all the little details of her role. However, the assumption looks to be wrong. Using celebrities to endorse humanitarian causes can be the silver bullet to attract massive funding, but sometimes it backfires. But, is Johansson the only to be blamed in the Oxfam affair? In this particular case, couldn’t Oxfam also be blamed for failing to properly inform and train its ambassador on its values, mission, principles and causes it supports?

Johansson’s split from Oxfam caused fuse among the aid community and led to a debate over whether charities should continue to use celebrities in support of their campaigns. Let aside the potential controversies, celebrities can still be very helpful and efficient in the fundraising campaigns. It is all about how well-informed are these celebrities about the causes and values they stand up for and choosing the right celebrity to deliver the message.

Johansson’s fellow actress Jennifer Garner had a different approach to her ambassador role for Save the Children. She decided to lay low for the first couple of years to get a very good grasp of the cause and principles she will endorse, according to a statement offered to Devex by the Save the Children President and CEO Carolyn Miles. “She said ‘I’m not going to go out and do a whole lot of things until I know what I’m talking about’ — so you know she’s in it for the long-run. Today, she can go without any Save the Children staff with her”, Miles added.

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What’s Wrong with Scarlett Johansson’s positioning?

For many of those who paid attention to the subject, it is clear Scarlett Johansson was not fully conscious of the impact of her decision and her statement highlights very clearly her naivety regarding the political and religious issue she barged in, as well as a misunderstanding of her role as Oxfam’s ambassador. In her eight year ambassadorship for Oxfam, Johansson was a dedicated endorser who managed to pull out quite successful fundraising campaigns. She visited places like post-tsunami Sri Lanka, drought-hit Kenya and India, while in 2008 along with fellow celebrities she lent her support to ‘In my name’, a global movement calling on governments to deliver their promises and meet the UN Millennium Development Goals.

How did it all go so wrong then? It all started when Johansson agreed to become the first global ambassador for Israeli –owned SodaStream at the end of January, as part of an ad campaign for the Super Bowl. The bone of contention is the SodaStream’s main factory that is built in what is called Zone C – right in the middle of the disputed area of the West Bank, the large settlement Maale Adumim. What is a fact is that settlements are illegal under international law [although not according to Johansson’s reasoning]. The area that is technically under Israeli control is an important subject to disputes between Israelis and Palestinians and the settlements issue still stands as an obstacle to the peace negotiations between the two parties that resumed last July.

If she has chosen to end her collaboration with Oxfam in favor of SodaStream because her Jewish roots, it’s a speculation, however, her official reasons are not. In her released statement, Johansson’s spokesperson mentioned “she [Johansson] and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.” Hence the difference of opinion is with regards of the humanitarian group opposition to all trade from Israeli settlements, saying they are illegal and deny Palestinian rights. “As part of my efforts as an Ambassador for Oxfam, I have witnessed first-hand that progress is made when communities join together and work alongside one another and feel proud of the outcome of that work in the quality of their product and work environment, in the pay they bring home to their families and in the benefits they equally receive”, her statement added.  Oxfam also issued a statement saying it had accepted her decision to step down and was grateful for her many contributions.

For a defender of human rights, as she posed for many years, this is quite a contradictory statement. Even if the West Bank settlements cover just four percent of the land, according to the European Union, about 60 percent of the territory still remains under direct Israeli control, containing some of the territory’s best water, mineral and agricultural resources. Moreover, 82 percent of Palestinians working in Israeli settlements would quit those jobs if viable alternatives were available, according to a recent position document published by Who Profits, an organization that tracks Israel’s economic practices in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Basically, West Bank trade remains largely isolated from global markets due to restrictions imposed on the movement of goods, according to a July 2011 study by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Boycott Against the Settlements, not Against Israel

Even SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum indirectly admits the establishment of the factory in the West Bank settlement is wrong. He argued he would “never” have established a production plant on an Israeli Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, as it turned out to be “a pain in the ass” according to Haaretz. The choice of the location belonged to the company founder Peter Weissburgh, back in the 1990’s. However, Scarlett Johansson continued in her statement: “Even though it is a side effect of representing SodaStream, I am happy that light is being shed on this issue in hopes that a greater number of voices will contribute to the conversation of a peaceful two state solution in the near future.” Both SodaStream CEO and Scarlett Johansson have praised the equal treatement of Palestinian workers at SodaStream factory. Even if this was true, although contradictory statements were put together, does this make settlements legitimate?

The defenders of Soda Stream-Johansson partnership accused Oxfam and the critics of this partnership of supporting the boycott of Israeli goods and services and “delegitimization” of Israel. They miss to mention that the boycott support concerns only goods and services originating from the illegitimate settlements in West Bank and the opposition to these settlements does not make Israel itself less legitimate. These accusations make no distinction between calls to boycott Israel and calls to boycott the settlements and this is simply wrong.

What becomes of Johansson’s judgment when decided to split from Oxfam and to join SodaStream? It just showed a naïve and superficial rationale behind what proved to be a very important decision. Will she ever be credible again as a humanitarian? What charity or international organization would ever want to link its name to hers? Who will ever trust her judgment when it comes to support a cause?

Maybe, if she would have taken a day to actually see by herself what life under Israeli occupation it’s really like, she would have thought twice before throwing a grenade in Oxfam’s backyard, as well as blowing up her career as humanitarian. Anyone who has travelled there has seen how Palestinians queue up at checkpoints, or has seen the children play while armed soldiers are watching them from a corner, and has also seen the watchtowers and barbed wire along the roads forbidden to Palestinians.

Conspiracy Theory?

Rankin, a British acclaimed photographer and director, who also worked with Johansson and Oxfam, jumped to her defense in a recent interview for The Independent saying “the power of a far-right pro-Israeli lobby within the US makes it increasingly tough for creative artists to take the ethical high ground in favor of Palestinians.”

“I think the reason that she has not backed down is because in America, the Jewish zealots are so powerful, especially in the entertainment industry. What they could do to her career,” Rankin added. He also admitted he had “negative views” on SodaStream’s West Bank operation.

His statements managed to stir up even more controversy, as Rankin mentioned: “People have said to me that if you go to Palestine you will be put on a list and it doesn’t matter if you’re a humanitarian. You will be put on a list. And I’m not political. I’m not anti-American. I’m not religious. I don’t even believe in God. I’m just about human beings.”

After the article was published, his spokesperson issued a statement to apologize for his remarks: “In an interview that was set up with The Independent about the launch of [a fashion magazine], I regret responding so glibly to off-topic questions on such a difficult and sensitive subject. Of course this is not my official position and I apologize wholeheartedly for my use of language and any offence this may have caused.”

Let aside the contradictions and controversies around the matters above, what it is very clear it’s that charities should learn their lesson and pay more attention of the celebrities they recruit as ambassadors and how they make sure these celebrities are properly informed on the principles and values they are endorsing, so they will not end up undermining the cause they should actually support.

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