The Entertainment Panel
"Elvis Costello is Not a Pizza"
The Entertainment Panel brought together a number of professionals involved in the entertainment industry. Each had one thing in common: they chose to use their popularity to promote social messages.
Advocacy Determines Success
Bangladeshi actor Asaduzzaman Noor was a revolutionary in his country's struggle for liberation and carried his political values into his acting career. He has worked on several health communication campaigns with JHU/ CCP.
Advocacy emerged as a strong theme in Noor's presentation. He spoke about being able to set a good example by influencing other celebrities to increase their involvement in social communication projects. He added that performers should consider EE as seriously as they do their professions.
Circumstances Change Lives
Some entertainers have been cast into roles as advocates for social change through circumstances. Jim Paredes (Philippines), singer, television host, and composer, began his career by creating a niche for Filipino language music to compete against the overwhelming American influence on the local music scene. His work evolved into a crusade for local language and culture. Over time, he became more of a social revolutionary, fighting for artistic freedom. This brought him to the forefront of the political revolution that eventually overthrew the Marcos regime.
The Power of Celebrity Status
According to Paredes, the power of celebrity status in popular culture makes audiences more receptive to messages from musicians than from specialists in any particular field. This makes it necessary for entertainers involved in EE to become knowledgeable about social issues. Noor agreed with this and also raised the notion of parasocial interaction - i. e., audience identification with characters in media productions. Noor explained that he plays the character of a physician on a television show and, when he visits villages in reality, he is frequently stopped by strangers and asked to fill prescriptions.
Sarah Pillsbury (USA) added that many Hollywood celebrities are becoming aware of the need to be social activists. They are identifying causes to support and educating themselves about the issues to use their star power for social change.
Pop Music and Social Communication
Pedro Suarez Vertiz (Peru) is a rock musician who has begun to integrate social messages into his music. Although his musical inspiration is the American rock tradition, his work also focuses on Western influence and "cultural imperialism."
The influence of pop music on young people's lives is well documented. Vertiz explained how he experienced an epiphany of sorts when he noticed young fans reciting the explicit lyrics of some of his songs. In his country, he is even referred to as a "sex leader" as a result of his music. For the first time, he understood how his music could affect people's lives.
The Role Record Companies Play
The role of corporate producers also determines the work produced by entertainers. Vertiz noted that to market his social music, he first has to obtain the record company's approval by giving his songs "sexy" titles. For example, one of his songs that promotes sexual responsibility among youth is entitled "Sex Train." Vertiz said that including explicit lyrics together with a social message could alienate fans as well as record companies. "I have learned a lot from the religious evangelists in my country," he said. "They put their foot on your doorstep without being invited, and that is not the way to do it." Humor and poetry are key elements that should be maintained in any EE program, said Vertiz.
The Importance of Pop Music
The importance of pop music in changing politics and everyday conversation is key to understanding its role as a medium for social communication, said panelist René Boomkens (The Netherlands), a professor of pop music. Vertiz also spoke about the importance of cultural shareability for artists who seek to reach a wider audience. He put forward his theory that pop musicians can only successfully reach people in different cultural settings when their music and messages are "decodable."
Pizza: An Easily Decodable Message
To illustrate his point, Vertiz made an interesting analogy between musicians and cuisine. "Entertainers like Ricky Martin have found their way to worldwide popularity by appealing to broad and popular interests. They're like pizza; they're easy to take, easy to digest, and move across many borders rapidly. The music of Elvis Costello, though, takes more getting used to; it's more characteristic of and appealing to a specific culture. Elvis Costello is not a pizza!"
What Drives Celebrities?
The discussion turned to the increased involvement of celebrities in social projects. Vertiz attributed this trend to celebrities' need to cast themselves in a positive light and increase publicity, thereby increasing sales for their projects. This implies a win-win situation for artists, because they are able to participate in positive social work and bolster their careers at the same time.
According to Paredes, celebrities have always received many requests for participation in worthy causes. The key to securing their involvement, said Paredes, is the level of preparation by the organization concerned. For him, it is a mistake for an organization to assume that the involvement of a celebrity will be a magic potion that ensures the success of a program. Such attitudes can demotivate artists, in addition to casting artists in a bad light, if the initiative is unsuccessful. Paredes also spoke about "celebrity fatigue" - when celebrities are used so frequently that their impact in reinforcing a message is reduced.
Repackaging and Marketing
Constant repackaging and marketing are therefore necessary elements in the entertainment industry. Madonna was mentioned as one artist who has been very successful at repackaging (i. e., transforming her identity), sometimes almost completely, to maintain her appeal to her audiences. Artists who are able to change with the times are able to maintain their popular appeal. The panelists agreed that this also applies to EE initiatives, which must be able to change to address current issues and attract audiences.
Celebrities as Role Models
The character of celebrities as role models also comes into focus, especially when they are involved in EE projects. When celebrities lose their moral standing, their messages suffer as a result. In such cases, it becomes difficult to rehabilitate them, except by re-framing or repackaging with the help of promoters and publicists. "Similarly," said Boomkens, "celebrities sometimes deliberately use a rebellious attitude to reach their audiences. In reality they are no more than 'the guy next door, ' but on stage they act like rebels. When this is taken too seriously, however, it may create a rift between them and their audiences."
This session proved to be engaging and insightful: scholars and campaign coordinators have much to learn from the entertainment industry, especially those who have made a conscious decision to be more social in their art. In most cases, their involvement has been intuitive; still, their experience offers important lessons learned for researchers, such as the intersection of business and social communication.