Talk about jumping into a good cause.
On Sunday, Lady Gaga took a plunge into freezing Lake Michigan to raise funds for Special Olympics Chicago, a nonprofit that promotes physical and mental health for children and adults with disabilities.
The “Poker Face” singer’s surprise appearance – and the participation of her fiancé, “Chicago Fire” star Taylor Kinney; actor Vince Vaughn; and 4,500 other volunteers – helped raise more than $1 million, the most in the charity’s history, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“It was awesome,” Gaga, soaked to the skin, told reporters after the event.
The artist’s apparent willingness to jump into the frigid water in the name of a good cause quickly went viral, drawing praise from fans online.
But the appearance of yet another celebrity at a charity event also raises a more controversial, less cozy question: When does charitable giving cross the line into self-promotion?
Or, as author and journalist Andrew Smith put it in a 2002 column for The Guardian: “Who gains the most from this exchange?”
In the opinion of York University professor Ilan Kapoor, the true benefactors are rarely the people for whom charitable events are held.
“What matters most to celebrity charity is the glitz and glam,” Mr. Kapoor wrote in an essay for New Internationalist Magazine in 2012.
“[I]t makes celebrities… look compassionate and caring, while diverting attention away from such uncomfortable issues as the complicity of our own economic and political élites (of which celebrities are now part) in the creation of the very poverty that such charity is intended to address,” he added.
In his book, “Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity,” Kapoor further argued that celebrity involvement in charitable causes is just a way for famous people to gain media exposure, increase their public “likeability,” and build their brand – all of which eventually lead to greater financial profit for that celebrity.
It also runs the risk of oversimplifying – or at least glossing over – a complex issue in the name of a viral campaign.
Denis Jackson, a doctor who spent years fighting HIV and AIDS in Africa, told The Guardian in 2002 that media soundbites such as "HIV drugs for all" can be counterproductive to the goal of promoting better understanding and true support for his cause.
“Anti-retroviral treatment in Africa is a very complex issue," Mr. Jackson said. "If you just took a load of drugs out there tomorrow, they would be of very little use.”
Another case in point: Last year’s wildly popular, social-media “Ice-Bucket Challenge.” Everyone from pop superstar Justin Bieber to Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg posted videos of themselves getting doused in ice water in the name of spreading awareness about the neurodegenerative illness ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Mark Hogan, The Telegraph’s celebrity columnist, wrote:
Ice-bucketing is the equivalent of clicking “like” on a Facebook cause or adding a “Twibbon” to your Twitter avatar… Or Stop Kony, Bring Back Our Girls, Movember, No Make-up Selfies or the other countless charidee fads that burn brightly then disappear, while the problem they purported to solve remains.
Which isn’t to say that celebrities such as Lady Gaga shouldn’t participate in charitable work, according to some experts.
Jackson credited the “discreet but tireless” work of celebrities such as Elton John and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, in raising awareness for AIDS and HIV “at a time when most of the public was terrified of them.”
Mark Wheeler, a professor of political communications at London Metropolitan University, argued that celebrities' involvement in charity work brings to public attention issues that otherwise no one would know or care about.
“Celebrity activists can bridge the gap between Western audiences and faraway tragedies by using their fame to publicize these international events,” Mr. Wheeler wrote. “They complement the work of the UN, non-state actors and other non-governmental organizations by using their charismatic authority to establish an equitable discourse within global civil society.”
And there are plenty of celebrities who keep their good works relatively low-key. Meryl Streep’s Silver Mountain Foundation for the Arts has donated millions to organizations such as Oxfam America, New York’s Meals on Wheels, and the National Women’s Museum, The Huffington Post reported in 2012.
Matt Damon has also spent years working for one cause without all the bells and whistles. In 2011, Mr. Damon was featured in innovation magazine Fast Company for his efforts to help bring clean water to African villages via Water.org.
Damon and his co-founder, Gary White, spent time in Africa studying the problem, trying to develop a system that involves people in the affected communities, and focusing on practical ways to solve the problem.
"Awareness is as important to us as fundraising," Damon told the magazine. "We want people to understand the issue in all its complexity."