Giving Back: A New Year’s Resolution for Social Media Celebrities

Philanthropy and the pursuit of “a good cause” has long been part of the fabric of being a celebrity. Hollywood has for years been outspoken on subjects ranging from the environment to gender and race equality, eradication of disease and helping the less fortunate. Only a couple of decades ago, however, philanthropy was reserved for only the sturdiest of stars. The bandwagon of environmentalism with its onset of celebrity proponents like Al Gore, Jeremy Irons and seemingly every other Hollywood tag-along, was once reserved for trailblazing outliers brandished as “tree huggers”.

In the last ten years, philanthropy has become all the rage and is considered “de rigeur” for the modern day celebrity. Superstars such as Bono, Miley Cyrus and Elton John have made philanthropy and the causes celebrities tirelessly work for part of the fabric of responsbility for people that are in the public eye. Bono’s “Red”, Elton’s Aids Foundation and Miley’s “Happy Hippy” are examples of the kind of high-profile, global efforts leading the way trying to solve the biggest challenges the human race faces today. Cause-based celebrations like Elton John’s Aids Foundation Oscars viewing party have permeated even the most glamorous of Hollywood events: the Academy Awards.

Actors have joined the game as well with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. DiCaprio’s Foundation, which provides funding for issues affecting the ocean and the environment, has held an annual high-profile bash in St. Tropez that has raised tens of millions for the causes he supports. Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation was born in the wake of the destruction that Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans. Pitt was determined to rebuild New Orlean’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods destroyed by Katrina. He did it in an environmentally friendly way using safe, energy-efficient and inexpensive building methods and materials.

In 2017, we have seen the “coming-of-age” of a new class of celebrity, the social media influencer. Most influencers are millenials. The public and the media have associated millenials with well-known stereotypes: selfies and the “me” narcicissm of social media, the lazy and entitled attitude that has become the calling-card of the generation and the lack of an awareness or respect for the past and what has come before them. Perhaps these are just stereotypes: from my experience, millenials can also be adventurous, curious and self-driven. Millenial social media stars not only have the mainstream popularity associated with other types of celebrities, but their real power is that their relationship with their fans and followers is a direct and highly engaged one. For this reason, brands, marketers and content producers are investing heavily with them pouring millions into influencer marketing campaigns and new-age digital content starring social media stars.

2017 has been a difficult year filled with environmental and weather-related disasters, terrorist incidents and the violent shootings in Las Vegas. Where has the social media celebrity been in taking responsibility with all of their newly-minted power and reach? Philanthropy and the urge to help others has been for the most part absent from their playbook, which has continued to rely upon comedic skits, scantily-clad photo sessions and dubious attempts to become actors and musicians. There have of course been numerous attempts at vanity associations with charities and causes: taking a one-off photo for the purpose of checking it off a list of must-dos, the quick in-and-out association with a cause showing up at a fundraising event or the re-posting of pictures reminding us of a tragedy that just occured. None of this is harmful, but where is the influencer in using his/her power to help out with more than just a “toe in the water” or the quick publicity photo aimed at declaring that “they give back”? Real engagement requires consistent dedication and attention to the cause over months and even years.

We have seen some philanthropic glimmers of hope however that are worth mentioning. Happy-go-lucky Instagram star Juanpa Zurita and You Tube celebrities Casey Neistat and Jerome Jarre successfully leveraged their power on social media to raise one million dollars in 19 hours to help those facing starvation in Somalia. Neistat said: “This is the story of what can happen when the power of social media is leveraged for something good.” This wasn’t just a imaginary campaign taking place in the ether of the digital world. Juanpa Zurita and crew actually traveled to Somalia to be on the ground and help in person.

Social media star Jake Paul and members of Team 10 drove all the way from California to Houston to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. According to Paul, “We have the chance to save thousands of lives and show everyone the power of social media.” Paul also donated funds from the sale of some of his merchandise dedicated to the cause. One wonders however from his quote whether or not the goal of the trip was to help or rather to show the power of what social media can do. Either way, it is another example of how social media stars can help to leverage their following for more altruistic purposes.

According to Maggie Neilson, CEO of the Global Philanthropy Group, Hollywood’s leading advisory group to celebrities on their philanthropic lives: “Given the outsized importance of cause to millennials, I don’t understand why more social media influencers haven’t gotten involved. Whether it is the environment or animals or civil rights, there is so much opportunity to make a difference on important issues. Even if influencers don’t even care about making the world a better place, they should still do it if only for follower loyalty. Cause engagement matters deeply to their millennial followers.”

Social media stars are also working with companies now not only to generate profits but also to further a cause. 91% of millennials surveyed are likely to switch to brands that support a cause, assuming similar price and quality. Most recently, director and social media wunderkind Jay Alvarrez teamed up with 4Ocean¬† to produce a video promoting the company’s efforts to clean up the world’s oceans from plastic waste. 4Ocean removes one pound of plastic from the oceans for every bracelet it sells. The bracelets are in turn made from the very same recycled plastic waste recovered from the ocean.¬† This is an example of a for-profit company not only helping a cause with a portion of its proceeds, but also making the pursuit of the cause the core fundamental principle of the enterprise. Alvarrez was the perfect choice for the campaign given that his stunning videography is based upon the natural asset he is promoting the health of, the world’s oceans.

Article written by: Barrett Wissman