Dimming star power: Do celebrities' anti-Trump voices matter?

As stars pour out in protests around the inauguration, research suggests celebrities rarely have the power to substantially change people's political opinions

As Hollywood's A-list pours out in protests, stars' ability to change political opinions is weak

Beyonce, right, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton embrace during a campaign rally in Cleveland, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Many Hollywood stars will be easy to find in the next few days, assembled at the various anti-Donald Trump protests: from Mark Ruffalo and Michael Moore's New York demonstration on Thursday to the Women's March on D.C. on Saturday, where Scarlett Johanssen and Cher are expected to walk

Just don't expect these protests to achieve much.

"I think they will be very satisfying for the individuals who already agree with the celebrities," says David J. Jackson, professor of political science at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, of the D.C. marches.

But he doubts any minds will be changed.

"This is not going to be persuasive. And in fact Trump supporters will probably become stronger Trump supporters as more celebrities continue with protests," said Jackson.

The Zookeeper's Wife actor and producer Jessica Chastain, in Toronto to discuss her new film, talks to CBC's Jelena Adzic about the importance of supporting 'those who don't have the opportunities I have.' 3:06

In October 2015, Jackson polled close to 900 Ohio voters about political endorsements from celebrities across the ideological spectrum, from Lena Dunham to Ted Nugent.

In an interview with CBC News, he said that in all cases, the respondents "were less likely to support a candidate if a particular celebrity endorsed him. Now that's the overall finding: that celebrities from top to bottom had net negative effects."

The election results proved the study findings correct. With Hillary Clinton's star-studded army of backers including everyone from Beyoncé to Bruce Springsteen to LeBron James — in contrast to the pro-Trump likes of Stacey Dash, Kid Rock and Curt Schilling — never has the deck seemed more stacked against one candidate. And yet, Clinton still lost the general election.

Long-time Democratic supporter Bruce Springsteen performs at the Hillary Clinton rally in Philadelphia on Nov. 7, 2016, the night before the U.S. election. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

Jackson's theory is that celebrities are only helpful in making a person feel stronger about an issue they are already leaning towards. When people have made up their minds, a celebrity isn't likely to change it, and in fact, it appears some celebrity endorsements can be off-putting.

Cheapened celebrity

MTV's senior political correspondent Ana Marie Cox attributes cynicism about celebrities' activism to something else.

I think that what is different today than in eras past is how cheap celebrity is.- Ana Marie Cox, MTV News

"I think that what is different today than in eras past is how cheap celebrity is. I don't think people are cynical about celebrity endorsements, I think they're cynical about celebrities because it takes so little to become one."

Cox particularly points to social media stars, who use their influence to hawk products from "detox tea to a place to vacation" as having political endorsements that offer little worth.

"It's not just that there are so many celebrities that they've lost their value, there are so many endorsements, endorsements have lost their value. A political endorsement is just an endorsement," says Cox.

Social media: no need for stars as go-betweens

And the growing power of social media may offer other clues as to why people care little about celebrities' political opinions, or in some cases, seem downright turned off by them.

"Celebrities are no longer walled off and elevated like they used to be," says Ana Marie Cox of social media's democratizing effects. In other words, if Alec Baldwin is on Twitter and so am I, why are his opinions more valuable than mine?

Ana Marie Cox, senior political analyst at MTV News, says it's the way we view celebrities, not the way we view their political influence, that has changed over the years. (CBC News)

She adds: "I think social media has made people value their own opinions quite a lot."

Ryerson University professor Ramona Pringle says, "social media has made it so that politicians can reach the public, directly," effectively eliminating the need for celebrity messengers.

"The path from politician to the public is so much shorter, and can be done 140 characters at a time," said Pringle.

Trump's celebrity

Speaking of expert Twitter users, the one paradox that leaves even the experts mystified is how Donald Trump managed to brand celebrities' opinions as "elitist" in the eyes of his supporters while simultaneously using his own star status to garner support.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense that someone could simultaneously say a celebrity shouldn't endorse, but a celebrity should be President. We're still working to figure that one out as social scientists," says David J. Jackson.

David J. Jackson, professor of political science at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, conducted research on how celebrities' endorsements influence people's political opinions. (CBC News)

One thing that all experts agree on is this: don't expect either Trump supporters or entertainers who oppose him to change sides anytime soon.

"It's really hard to change people's minds as polarized as the electorate is right now. Both sides in America are becoming increasingly impervious to argumentation and evidence," says Jackson.

Ana Marie Cox says she hopes that despite its dubious effects on political discourse, stars' political activism doesn't stop entirely.

"I think the role of the arts community in the Trump administration is the role of any community, the role of any citizen: to be watchful and wary and to speak out against injustice."

Actress Jessica Chastain, in Toronto to discuss her upcoming movie, The Zookeeper's Wife, said she will join the Women's March in Washington on Saturday, and told CBC News the act of just being there is what matters.

"I don't use any idea of like, 'Ok I am going to make this big difference because I have more of a platform than anyone else.' I don't think I do. I think everyone has a right to be there, everyone is important and their voice should be heard. I am there to support the people who feel disenfranchised, who don't have a platform."

About the Author

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the entertainment unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.