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Why Celebrities & Brands Can No Longer Hide Their Political Allegiances
Nathalie Olah , December 10th, 2019 11:20

As the most significant general election in decades looms, Nathalie Olah questions celebrities and brands who like to make vague political statements but don't take a stand to say who, exactly, they're endorsing

This election cycle has taught us many things, one of which is just how fragile the pretense of so much advertising and marketing is. In recent weeks, and particularly in the lead up to the voter registration deadline, we've seen lots of celebrities and brands coming out with statements about the importance of voting. Singer Dua Lipa, comedian Steve Coogan and cultural theorist Naomi Klein are just some of the big names coming out in support for Labour. Hugh Grant has done a tour of marginal constituencies in support of both the Lib Dems and Labour. But other public figures have been more reticent about showing their political colours, issuing statements in support of democracy, but ultimately holding back from committing to any one political ‘side'.

Last week, music streaming service Boiler Room was criticised after publishing a post encouraging their followers to register to vote, followed by the somewhat bewildering question of whether or not they agreed with an increase in corporation tax. In response to a slew of online criticism, Boiler Room eventually came out in support of Labour. Then later that week, a similar situation arose when Charli XCX posted a politically ambiguous statement encouraging young people to get out and vote on some of the most important issues of the day, including climate change, racial discrimination and LGBTQ+ rights. In an election where so much is at stake – ten years of austerity, a looming Brexit and the threat of climate change – many people publicly registered their disappointment for what appeared like a hollow gesture of political support.

What do these stories tell us about the nature of brands, and their commitment to the people who support them, versus their commitment to their corporate sponsors and allies? Are people and enterprises that ultimately have no investment, piggybacking on progressive politics as a cynical ploy to drive clicks? Or are these individuals and enterprises genuinely scared of alienating a portion of their support base?

At the heart of the issue is a tension that has existed somewhat undisturbed for decades, between companies and celebrities who rely on a young consumer base, and the broadly progressive and egalitarian politics that they believe in. This becomes all the more of a worry when we consider the fact that many brands have also expanded their remit to include content production - acting more and more like magazines and editorial platforms, as opposed to straightforward commercial entities. Think about how many stores you shop at or music services you use who now produce articles and films. But with the exception of publicly-funded bodies such as the BBC, most major editorial platforms have always been historically required to register their political views. If brands want to be able to ape the model of most magazines for the purposes of driving clicks and increasing revenue, shouldn't they also be held to the same standards of transparency and disclosure?

What's more, to secure a young consumer base, brands have also tried to claim their stake in identity politics, co-opting feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, gender, race and disability in their endless march to try and seem relevant and current. This being the case, why do they stop short of disclosing their party-political allegiances? Who you vote for has the biggest impact on the treatment of all those identity issues combined.

When celebrities and brands with a large following hold so much sway over popular culture, and have the power through digital platforms to behave increasingly like magazines and editorial platforms, and to co-opt protest movements for the sake of pushing product, it is essential for them to come clean about who they support on 12th December. If they don't, this should be factor in whether or not we continue to follow and support them. Who of us, after all, wants to invest our time and money in an entity that supports climate change denial, or a programme of austerity that has led to the impoverishment of some 12 million people?

Democracy in the formal sense might only happen once every few years, but every day we are casting votes for the world we want to live in through the financial transactions and digital interactions that we make with corporate entities, including celebrities. The internet has broken down the ‘fourth wall' that used to exist between celebrities and brands and their consumers. Both of the former have profited exponentially from this, but the flipside is that the illusion a pop culture and consumer culture that exists outside of, and separate to, politics no longer exists. More and more we are starting to appreciate just how connected everything really is, and coming to understand how the mechanisms of capitalism influence almost every part of modern life.

When the politics of every day life occasionally collide with the questions of parliamentary politics, the former cannot be allowed to simply bury its head in the sand and abdicate all responsibility. Instead, we all have a role in holding our favourite brands – clothing, music, or otherwise - to account, asking whether they're prepared to step up and support the progressive politics of the young people whom they rely on for their revenue and support, or whether, like the political class that has reigned in this country for the past few decades, they're willing to throw them under the bus.

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