Do celebrity endorsements really help environmental campaigns? We found no evidence
Arsenal footballer Hector Bellerin recently teamed up with a reforestation charity and pledged to plant 3,000 trees for every win his team wins. This is just one example of the now widespread use of celebrities like him in environmental conservation marketing campaigns.
But are these endorsements really effective? We’re not so sure. In a recent academic study, we looked at whether campaigns rate the success of these endorsements and looked for evidence that celebrities help achieve campaign goals.
To give us a more holistic view, we searched six different languages for posts about celebrity-backed environmental campaigns: English, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Vietnamese. We found 79 campaigns implemented in nine countries between 1976 and 2018. A total of 181 celebrities endorsed these campaigns. They included actors, musicians, athletes, experts in a particular subject, television presenters, writers, artists, models, comedians, and politicians. Most campaigns have focused on sustainable lifestyles and wildlife conservation, while pollution and climate change have received limited attention.
To analyze the campaigns, we compared them to an eight-step framework for implementing a celebrity-based intervention that one of us developed in previous research that included elements from the conservation literature. , business and behavioral sciences. The eight steps are about ensuring an intervention is informed by research, has a clear path to its desired goal(s), an evidence-based rationale behind campaign components such as celebrity selection or the overall concept of the campaign, and that it is tested before implementation. These elements allow campaign organizers – and later researchers like us – to measure its success.
Among the campaigns studied, we found a lack of measurable goals, theories of change, research on celebrity selection, and measurement of success. Only 40% of campaigns said they aimed to enlist celebrities, and most said it was to get more media coverage.
But campaign visibility should not be an end in itself. Visibility indicates delivery, not whether delivered messages had the desired impact. A recent example of this was seen when a group of celebrities sang John Lennon’s song “Imagine” from their homes during the pandemic. The video had hundreds of thousands of views, but many of the comments and reactions the video received were negative.
Only one campaign had a theory of change that guided goal development, target audience selection, campaign design, and celebrity selection. In marketing, guiding principles are used to select celebrity messengers. For example, selecting celebrities who are perceived as attractive, trustworthy, or that the target audience can relate to. Our results indicate that these principles are not applied in environmental campaigns.
The only campaign that reported research on celebrity selection was the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) #WildforLife campaign. It aimed to raise awareness of the illegal wildlife trade in key countries. Relevant demographic groups were identified and local celebrities followed by the target audience on social media were engaged as influencers. The rest of the campaigns we reviewed did not specify why the celebrities were enlisted or why their endorsement would help achieve campaign goals.
Of the 79 campaigns we reviewed, only four were evaluated. And these ratings don’t show that celebrity endorsements specifically contributed to the campaign’s results. For example, The Target 140 campaign aimed to reduce daily water consumption by 20% in Brisbane, Australia. Yes, a 22% reduction in water consumption has been achieved. But the evaluation did not reveal whether the celebrities involved contributed to this success.
Despite the lack of evaluation, 11 claims of the campaign’s effectiveness were made and of these, three claimed that the celebrity endorsement was effective. In one, Chinese writers Zhao Danian and Shu Yi encouraged chefs to pledge to refrain from cooking with endangered wild animals. Although some promises were made, there was no information on how many chiefs were approached or how many agreed or declined to participate. Moreover, no monitoring of the behavior of the leaders has been reported.
In the #WildforLife campaign, the goals were to raise awareness of the illegal wildlife trade and mobilize people to protect endangered species and end the trade. While the sharing of campaign messages through celebrities’ social media accounts achieved the desired reach, it should not be assumed that reach equates to raising awareness and mobilizing action. The quality and content of social media reactions to the campaign could have indicated whether the public was reacting to the message or the celebrity, or both, but this was not assessed.
The lack of measurable goals, theories of change, outcome indicators, and critical evaluation makes it impossible to determine whether the results achieved by the campaigns found can be attributed to celebrity endorsements. It therefore remains unclear whether celebrity endorsements of environmental campaigns can contribute to environmental protection and conservation efforts.
We found only 79 campaigns in the literature searched in this scoping review despite searching six languages from the earliest records available to January 2019. It is possible, even likely, that data and information demonstrating the Celebrity endorsement efficiencies exist in campaign organizations that use celebrities. If so, it is problematic for conservationists because the lessons learned cannot be used more widely. Organizations should be encouraged to report the success – or failure – of celebrity endorsements, to ensure their future use in environmental campaigns is evidence-based.