The dustup over Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl “half-time in America” Chrysler ad – with the White House tweeting its surprise, Republicans crying foul, and the actor denying any intentional endorsement – nonetheless raises the question: How much do celebrity endorsements matter these days?
After all, says Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer, “Clint Eastwood is very respected.” Despite the fact that he has not been a supporter of President Obama, she says, "this is being interpreted as a Democratic commercial." As such, she adds, “this could provide an interesting bump,” for the president.
Hollywood A-Listers have been corralled into the political arena for decades – Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart were high-profile Republicans, for instance – but the ability to transfer fan love to a candidate has never been direct and is hard to gauge. While certainly not defining, celebrity “dust” is an undeniable and occasionally potent part of the political calculus, especially as presidential elections have gotten closer and the Internet has made viral celebrity reach almost unimaginable compared with the pre-Internet age.
“Just look at Mitt Romney standing on that dais with Donald Trump,” says Anthony Nownes, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, adding that while he might not have considered Mr. Trump an important ally in the fight, “Romney thought so and certainly got a lot of attention for the move.”
In an attempt to quantify the rub-off effect, Professor Nownes conducted a study of celebrity impact on the political views of some 300 voters in the run-up to the 2008 election. He used the then-wildly popular football player Peyton Manning as his test subject, revealing to his study participants that the athlete was a Republican who supported GOP causes.
“Most of the people who were exposed to that information increased their view of the GOP,” says Prof. Nownes. “Not a lot, but that is significant,” he adds, especially as we move into a time where elections are being decided by very few votes.
History shows that a top-shelf endorsement is no guarantee of an easy victory, says Republican strategist David Johnson, who worked on Sen. Robert Dole’s 1988 presidential campaign. He points out that movie A-Listers Gary Cooper and John Wayne supported losing politicians such as Thomas Dewey and Wendell Wilkie. “Of course, they jumped on the Ike bandwagon, but Eisenhower could have won without that,” he says with a laugh, “after all he defeated the Nazis, how can you beat that?”
He ticks off the list of big-name celebrities who fell on the losing side of the ticket over and over, from Bob Hope in 1964 with Barry Goldwater to 1972’s GOP Nixon landslide. “George McGovern had Paul Newman and Robert Redford on his side and it didn’t help him one bit,” he points out.
Increasingly, in a digital age where the public is placing more and more value on authenticity, the public’s perception of the endorser makes a difference.
“Do celebrity endorsements work?” asks Len Shyles, a Villanova University communication professor, via email. “Yes and no,” he says. “In the case of those coming from celebrities of quality and who are viewed as being of good judgment, and who do not fall from grace, they can’t hurt.”
Veer from that aura of credibility, as happened in the case of golf legend Tiger Woods, he adds, and the value of an endorsement can actually be negative.
Politicians need to weigh the upsides and downsides carefully, says Matthew Hale, associate professor at Seton Hall University. In general having Hollywood actors directly involved in campaigning hurts more than it helps, because they are generally targeted as card-carrying members of the so-called "liberal elite."
But, he says this Clint Eastwood ad is different.
“It was for a car company, not a president, so even though the message – that America is coming back and coming back strong – works for both, it is not a movie star directly campaigning for Obama,” he says, adding, “it is Dirty Harry and he is an icon on the right, and to have him say things are getting better and America is coming back is a huge plus for Obama.”
This is not the first time the president has been helped by celebrities, he notes. The Oprah effect in 2008 was considerable, with many pundits suggesting her strong endorsement of Obama was instrumental in getting out the vote.
But that was not the only help he received. Also in the 2008 campaign, Mr. Hale points out, Will.i.am produced a video called "Yes We Can," which featured celebrities singing the words to an Obama speech. It captured his message of hope and change perfectly, he adds.
The door can swing both ways, however, notes Professor Nownes. He notes that while the GOP may have benefited in his study from people’s positive feelings about Manning, their feelings toward Manning actually eroded.
“People don’t want their celebrities to be taking sides,” Nownes says, “so it cuts both ways.”