Star System: Celebrities Cement Their Influence on Politics

TV viewers can’t seem to escape Virginia Madsen these days.

No, she’s not a Hollywood bad girl being exposed and dissected by tabloid TV shows, or the star of a new fall sitcom. Nor is she taking to the talk show circuit to promote any feature film at the moment.

Rather, the wide-eyed, smoky-voiced Madsen, who made a splash in movies like Sideways and Candyman, has hit the airwaves to spread the word about a couple of seemingly disparate matters of interest to women — encouraging them, via a public service announcement, to get involved in the political process, and selling them, via a highly visible multimedia campaign from Grey, on the benefits of a popular, wrinkle-combating drug.

Allergan, manufacturer of Botox, of which Madsen is the face, partnered with the League of Women Voters on an initiative called Freedom of Expression Through Film. Playing off the Botox tagline, the drug maker calls the public-awareness campaign “dedicated to voter education and self-expression.” Madsen played a major role. Beyond the PSA, the actress crisscrossed the country on a 10-city tour this summer on behalf of the 88-year-old nonpartisan League.

Fighting the effects of aging and inspiring political involvement would not seem to have much in common. But Madsen ties it all together, explaining, “It really is about the total woman. We’re complicated creatures. There are so many aspects to us, so many different choices we have as women today with our bodies, our minds, beauty, brains-and one of the most important choices we have this year is voting.”

In a historic political year in which celebrity has played a starring role — from Oprah and Paris Hilton to the megawatt impact of Obama and Palin — the Madsen-Allergan-League partnership made for an ingenious and increasingly common intersection of celebrity, politics and commerce. And with our celebrity-fixated electorate engaged in the pursuit for the White House like never before — as evidenced by record ratings for both political conventions — it’s no wonder advocacy groups, marketers and media brands all have sought to cash in on that heavy consumer interest.

Another high-profile, celebrity-centered link-up encompassing politics, marketing and civic awareness was initiated by Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan voter-registration group founded by legendary TV producer Norman Lear. Its eye-catching campaign to encourage voter involvement roped in A-list young stars like America Ferrera, Zac Efron and Jessica Alba, whose arresting, duct-tape-bound image got tongues wagging when it rolled out a couple of weeks ago. “The celebrity involvement this year is more intense, more visible and more pragmatic,” says Marc Morgenstern, executive director. “They feel very strongly about this election-it’s not a casual thing. They’re going out of their way to use their appeal to get out the youth vote.”

Corporations jumping on the Declare Yourself bandwagon include American Eagle Outfitters, which marketed a Declare Yourself T-shirt, and Apple’s iTunes, which featured an exclusive cover of Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” by Sean Kingston. “Working with partners like this gives us a bigger footprint, and that’s critical,” says Morgenstern, whose organization reports registering some 2 million voters since 2004, about 750,000 of them this election cycle.

While those examples had civic mindedness at their core, most brands have taken a cheekier approach. Unilever’s politically themed iteration of the long-running “Axe Effect” campaign had Hillary Clinton donning both Obama and McCain buttons during the primaries. Another lighthearted entry was the “presidential campaign” of Captain Morgan, mascot of the Diageo rum brand, who made appearances at both political conventions after the marketer secured sponsorship rights.

Meanwhile, Miller High Life, a MillerCoors brand, had a beer delivery guy touting his “Common Sense Party” via the Web and appearances at sporting events and nightclubs. And the restaurant chain Denny’s launched a “Vote for Real” contest seeking best look-alikes of the presidential candidates.

Flipping channels, it’s evident the range of entertainment-media brands that have — along with some of the marketers whose messages they carry — aligned themselves with this year’s presidential contest. Forerunner Comedy Central continues to break ratings records with its “Indecision 2008” coverage on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Following suit, networks including Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, Lifetime, CMT, Spike TV and Logo have capitalized on the public’s fascination with the campaign with dedicated programming, candidate debates, town halls, streaming video, user-generated content — even made-for-TV movies.

Rainbow Media’s We cable network has made a voter-registration drive (goal: 1 million women) the center of its branding campaign, enlisting the likes of Geraldine Ferraro, former U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari, and entertainers Kelly Ripa, Ricki Lake and LeAnn Rimes.

Sibling net IFC, which took only a toe-in-the-water approach in previous elections, this time rolled out news specials, audience polls, on-demand content, streaming video, extensive primary and convention coverage, and blogs. “We’ve never done anything of this magnitude before,” says Evan Shapiro, president of Sundance Channel and IFC. “Our Web traffic is up, we’re getting covered by other media and our viewers like it because it’s a reflection of their independent mind-set.”

Meanwhile, syndicated entertainment shows — known more for chasing Britney Spears and Brangelina than for their political coverage — also have devoted more time to this star-studded election cycle. Access Hollywood, from NBC Universal, found ratings gold with its interviews of Barack Obama and his family. Ratings shot up 25 percent week over week and 30 percent in the all important women 25-54 demo, while Web traffic jumped 165 percent. As executive producer Rob Silverstein points out, “These politicians are the biggest stars out there right now.” Adds IFC’s Shapiro, “Celebrities pale in comparison to the star power of Obama and Palin. This election is high drama. It’s better than Gossip Girl.”

For Hollywood stars to link with political causes and candidates is nothing new, of course. But that trend certainly seems to have hit a saturation level in 2008, with Oprah Winfrey’s powerful endorsement of Obama as the tipping point. The question-for the political parties marketing their name-brand candidates as well as brands and nonpartisan groups aiming to take advantage of the spotlight-remains: Is a celebrity’s involvement good, bad or inconsequential?

A cause or a campaign with a big-time star on its side can most assuredly raise money, draw crowds and generate buzz, but there can be a downside. “If you use celebrities in your campaign, you’ll be tarred as an elitist,” explains Howard Bragman, CEO of the public relations firm Fifteen Minutes and author of the forthcoming Where’s My Fifteen Minutes? That is especially true for a superstar like Obama, who has attracted the support of a range of Hollywood heavyweights, including Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and Ben Affleck. Therefore, Obama, says Bragman, has had to be “appropriately cautious, knowing that it could work against him.”

Still, others contend that at the end of the day, celebrities have little real influence. “There’s not a lot of evidence, historically, to show that celebrity endorsement has an impact on how people vote,” says Darrell West, political science professor at Brown University and author of Celebrity Politics. “Most people in middle America and elsewhere look to celebrities for entertainment, not for advice on presidential politics.”

T.L. Stanley is a frequent contributor to Special Reports. She can be reached at tlstanley8@yahoo.com.