Do celebrity endorsements actually influence public opinion?

New research published in the Journal of Political Marketing sheds light on how celebrity endorsements shape public opinion. The study suggests that endorsements can help or hurt a cause — depending on how people view the celebrity.

“I became interested in this topic when I was in graduate school in the mid-1990s because celebrity involvement in politics was beginning to increase and it made sense to me that they could be meaningful,” said study author David J. Jackson of Bowling Green State University.

“I noticed that the research area of political socialization had lagged a bit by that point, even being called an intellectual fad by some critics. I believed that entertainers through both their pronouncements outside their artistic creations but also within their songs, movies, and TV shows should be studied as agents of political socialization, so I began my work with surveys looking for relationships between young people’s entertainment preferences and their political beliefs.”

Jackson analyzed survey responses from 810 registered Ohio voters who said they were likely to vote in the 2016 general election. The survey was conducted in March 2016.

The survey examined the impact of actual statements that Ronda Rousey, Angelina Jolie, Janelle Monae, Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Taylor Swift, and Kim Kardashian made on a variety of issues, such as campaign finance, gun laws, feminism, and other topics.

Jackson found that people who read about the celebrity endorsements were more likely to agree with the celebrity’s position if they had a favorable view of them.

“Celebrities whom people feel positively toward are able to influence what people think about specific political issues on which the celebrity has taken a position,” Jackson told PsyPost. “In an increasingly fragmented celebrity world, some celebrities are well-known and liked by only some people, and it is among these people we should expect them to have political influence.”

But Jackson also found evidence that endorsements from unliked celebrities could backfire. Participants who read that Kardashian was disappointed with President Barack Obama for not calling the killing of Armenians in 1915 a genocide were less likely to agree with her, compared to those who didn’t read about Kardashian’s opinion.

Participants with a favorable view of Kardashian were more likely to agree with her — but only 8.5% felt favorably toward her.

There is still much to learn about the political impact of celebrity endorsements.

“Are celebrity endorsements of candidates the type of thing that have direct effects, or are they mediated? Anthony Nownes did a great study where he showed that celebrity endorsements of a candidate reduced negative emotions toward a candidate, which then in theory should relate to a greater likelihood of voting for the candidate,” Jackson said.

“Also, do some celebrities hurt a candidate or issue position so much among some voters that the help they provide among others is washed out, or even their endorsement becomes a net negative?”

“Celebrities and politics is going to remain a vital area of concern for social scientists as long as celebrities remain involved in politics, and it appears they are going to remain involved,” Jackson added.

“We really need scholarship on the incredible transformation that has occurred where Republicans formerly complained about celebrity influence in politics, then nominated and elected to the presidency a game show host with no previous public service experience. Was their opposition to celebrity involvement in politics principled, or an artifact of celebrities’ traditional support of Democrats and liberals?”

The study was titled: “The Effects of Celebrity Endorsements of Ideas and Presidential Candidates“.