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Russell Brand v Katie Hopkins

07 May 2015. Published by Genevieve Isherwood, Associate

Whether we like it or not, celebrities can wield a great deal of power and influence; on the clothes we wear, the films we see or the products we buy.

But can celebrities shape our political decisions? And will their views impact the outcome of the coming election?

Celebrities in the UK have long since used their fame to voice opinions on political parties. John Cleese filmed a three-minute monologue endorsing the Liberal Democrats in 1992 and Sean Connery has always been a vocal supporter for the SNP. However, it is in America where celebrities appear to have wielded the most influence on politics, in recent years.

Celebrity influence on American politics has a long history, going back to John F. Kennedy's courting of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. More recently, in the 2012 election, many celebrities publically backed certain candidates, with Jay Z, Will Ferrell and Bill Gates choosing Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, Kid Rock and Gene Simmons plumping for Mitt Romney. Celebrities have also made large donations to the cause of their chosen candidate. A fundraiser for Obama's campaign hosted by George Clooney and boasting a star-studded guest list (including the likes of Barbra Streisand) reportedly netted $15 million for the campaign fund. The interplay between celebrity and politics in America is no better demonstrated than by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving the celebrity world and entering the political field.

Is the situation that different in Britain? Whilst we might like to think we keep the spheres more separate, this doesn't appear to be the case. The wealth of celebrities who have appeared on Question Time (Russell Brand, Hugh Grant, Joey Barton, Will Young, Carol Vorderman, Jarvis Cocker) shows we are interested in the political opinions of celebrities. British celebrities have wielded financial influence on politics too. JK Rowling made a £1 million donation to the Better Together Campaign in 2014 and Sir Alex Ferguson has been a long-time Labour donor, supporter and even advisor (to Tony Blair).

In the run up to this election the media is full of the opinions and endorsements of celebrities. If it isn't Joey Essex's General Election: What are You Saying?! TV special (where, after interviewing Nick Clegg, he is made aware "that the party's name [is] not the Liberal Democats") then it is Katie Hopkins threatening to leave the UK if Ed Miliband is elected. Unfortunately for the controversial Hopkins (who recently referred to migrants as "cockroaches"), the threat has been seized on by Labour supporters as a reason to vote Labour. Whether Hopkins would make good on the threat in the event Miliband is elected, as Phil Collins did when Labour won in 1997, remains to be seen.

Russell Brand's recent interview of Ed Miliband demonstrates the power celebrities can have. Thousands of column inches, air time, tweets and internet commentary were devoted to what was said, why Miliband chose to appear and whether this was a good or bad decision. The exposure even led David Cameron to comment on the video. And with more than 1.1 million subscribers to Brand's YouTube channel, it is undeniable that the video has given Miliband a lot of exposure, perhaps to people he wouldn't necessarily reach on the ordinary campaign trail. Interestingly, this interview (in which Brand does not endorse Miliband) has received much more publicity than Brand's interview of Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett in which he urges the people of Brighton to vote for Caroline Lucas. However, Brand's follow-up video, released over the bank-holiday weekend, does go as far as endorsing Miliband, suggesting viewers vote Labour (unless in Brighton – where he backs Caroline Lucas).

But does such celebrity endorsement and commentary really have an influence? Research in this area is divided, but would appear to indicate that celebrities can have some influence on voters (although to what degree is unknown). Research from Northwestern University and the University of Maryland estimates that Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Obama in 2008 was responsible for him receiving approximately 1 million extra votes. Likewise, the research of Anthony Nownes, of the University of Tennessee, indicated that people are less likely to report liking a political party when told that certain celebrities (whom they disliked) were donors. Clearly, then, celebrities do wield some power. However, research from the University of Bath suggests that celebrity endorsements are only effective in driving voter intention if that voter was not already engaged in politics; if you were already thinking of politics and political issues, celebrity endorsement is unlikely to have an effect on you. Ultimately, the answer is unclear because asking someone whether they are influenced by celebrities is like asking them if they are influenced by subliminal advertising – even if they are, they won't necessarily realise that is the case!

So, when you head to the polls today try to think about the policies and the leaders, not Katie Hopkins and Russell Brand!

Genevieve Isherwood

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