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Celebrity Activism: Publicity Stunt or Sincere Care?

It is the latest trend in Hollywood- picking a cause to support. But amidst the helpful spirit lies deep skepticism about celebrities' motives. VOA's Crystal Park takes a look at whether celebrity activism is a convenient vehicle for publicity or a genuine concern for the issues.

The band U2 has been rocking out for fans since 1976, and along the way collected 22 Grammy awards, the most any recording artist has ever won. They’ve sold more than 170 million albums worldwide. They are the ultimate rock stars.

Actress Angelina Jolie is the sixth highest paid actress in Hollywood, commanding $10 million per film. She’s also a constant tabloid darling, thanks to her very high profile relationship with actor Brad Pitt.

But there is another side to these mega famous celebrities. This side lets the spotlight come off them, and shine on some people who need it more.

Celebrities have been playing dual roles, as entertainer and activist, for a long time.

Movie star Audrey Hepburn was one of the first celebrities to champion a cause. However, these days, it seems nearly every celebrity has a cause or organization they are affiliated with.

But some critics complain celebrities are more interested in boosting their profile, than raising aid for the causes they're touting.

Many critics also say celebrity activists are hypocrites- spending time with AIDS patients in Africa, and then coming home to extravagant lifestyles. But actor Don Cheadle says that is precisely why they are doing what they do. "You do sit there, and you do go, 'Wow I have this embarrassment of wealth, and what am I doing? And very closely on the heels of that you go, "Well, this is what I'm doing, and this is how I'm trying to do it, and this is the way I'm trying to draw focus,” he said.

A deeper concern for many critics is that these celebrities do not have a strong grasp of the issues they are talking about.

One organization that specifically seeks out help from celebrities is the United Nations. Their long-standing Goodwill Ambassador program specifically uses celebrities to draw attention to their mission. Their most famous ambassador is Angelina Jolie. UNHCR spokesman, Tim Irwin, says, on the contrary, the celebrities he works with do understand the issues. He said, “They are informed and they are involved. They will frequently pay all of their expenses when they're on missions.

The celebrities themselves say they get involved because it is impossible not to. Actor George Clooney said, “You want to just scream and you want to stand there and say, 'What is wrong with you people? Are you kidding? That we're all sitting in rooms talking about this while these people are dying?"

But a celebrity endorsement has little or no impact on the public's decision to support a cause or charity, according to a survey by Cone, Incorporated, a communications agency engaged in building brand trust.

The survey of about one thousand adults revealed that celebrities are the least likely to influence a person's decision to support a cause. Instead, one's family and friends hold the most power.

But the skepticism surrounding celebrities who are devoted to a cause does not discourage the devoted celebrities. Oscar winner Nicole Kidman said, “There's always going to be cynicism. Be willing to take the shots, be willing to keep doing your bit because if you've been given an enormous amount in life, it is your duty to give back."

Though celebrities are often scrutinized for their motives, they have the ears of some of the most powerful political figures in the world. Rock star Bono has discussed AIDS issues in Africa with President Bush. Movie star Angelina Jolie has talked with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice about the plight of refugees.

Both sides do agree on one thing. The good that these celebrities do accomplish is more important than the publicity it generates.