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.