Pointless celebrity political endorsements

  • The List
  • 25 April 2011
Opinion: the ridiculousness of celebrity endorsements in politics

As the election approaches, famous folk including Elaine C Smith and Alan Cumming pick sides

On the website of the Scottish National Party is to be found a remarkable thing, a video in which the actress and professional Glaswegian Elaine C Smith explains how to vote in the forthcoming Holyrood elections. Now, this reads as though Smith is making a case or a recommendation. Unfortunately, no. Literally, Elaine is describing the process of how to make a mark upon the relevant sheet of paper: ‘What you do is look down [the form] for Alex Salmond’s name, and put a cross next to that, and that’s you voting for him.’ And … relax. Thanks, Elaine.

It’s easy to mock; of course it’s easy to mock, it’s Elaine C. Smith and it’s the SNP. What it does highlight is that, no matter how woeful the endorsements, political parties are still happy to hold up celebrities in front of their campaigns, particularly those from cultural stock. This time round the Nats have signed up a vaguely impressive roster: including actor Brian Cox, the Michelin chef Andrew Fairlie, Coatbridge’s comic book overlord Mark Millar, Iain Banks, the beardy author of novels people always leave on trains, and Alan Cumming, an actor whose answering machine, one suspects, declares: ‘You’ve reached Alan. I’ll do it.’ Labour has Sir Alex Ferguson and, er, that’s it.

Back with Elaine, meanwhile, there’s something conveniently metaphoric to her video, in the way it encapsulates the cheerful, kindergarten absurdity of the celebrity political endorsement. In my experience, the average celebrity, the thespian particularly, is so wretchedly precious and light-absorbing they can’t cross their legs without bringing to mind Richard III. They are monomaniacs.

And central to this rather severe condition is the certainty that celebrities can master anything. To them elections are Strictly Come Voting. Yet no-one who can cut up their own food would ever admit to being swayed by a celebrity endorsement. Their political preferences are irrelevant frequencies in the celebrity white noise. And for the politicians (though perhaps not for their publicity teams) the celebrity thumbs-up is just the equivalent of the framed snap on the mantelpiece, the leaf in the autograph book. It’s all brinkmanship, a game of Top Trumps with real people. Rest assured, no politician has ever hung up the phone and screamed ‘Yes, the guy from Torchwood says he’s in!’

The real joke, meanwhile, is that celebrity political endorsements are seen as definingly modern, right at the nexus of media and mediation, an attempt to fuse style and content. Actually, they were pioneered in the 1920s by PR man Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who paired grim President Coolidge with showbiz figures because 'stage people symbolise warmth, extroversion and Bohemian camaraderie'. And, best of all, they can also teach us how to write …

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