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Soda, shoes and social issues: Can celebrities sway our political opinions?

Published: Thursday, July 21 2011 11:54 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — For years, R.C. Wiley has been using celebrities to endorse their products, from former Jazz coach Frank Layden to retired NBA star Tom Chambers.

So it's no wonder that the local furniture giant R.C. Wiley recently turned to Paige Davis, actress and host of "Trading Spaces" to raise awareness of the company's brand and image.

"Celebrities get people's attention more than a CEO or a professional," said Clark Yospe, marketing vice president for R.C. Wiley.

While companies have been pushing products through endorsements since Chuck Taylor donned a sneaker, today's celebrities are using media for a different purpose: to affect change and impact social issues, from Charlton Heston's support of the NRA to Scarlett Johansson's appearance in a commercial for Planned Parenthood. But without real expertise, experts say, a celebrity's input may only be worth two cents.

Klout, a website that measures an individual's social-media influence, reports that actor and social-media guru Ashton Kutcher has "the largest, most engaged audience possible" following his Twitter account. According to the website, Kutcher has a "true reach," or a total number of engaged followers, of nearly 3 million. The number is based on how many followers shared or acted upon Kutcher's posted content.

The "That 70s Show" actor has tackled issues like human trafficking on his Twitter page, which has more than 7 million followers.

Celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Lady Gaga flooded Twitter with rejoice when gay marriage passed in New York.

But can celebrities with influence, like Kutcher and Baldwin, shift the opinion of millions with a tweet, cameo or comment?

Craig Frizzell, a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, doesn't think so.

He said the likelihood of a star swaying public opinion is greater depending on how influential the celebrity is to the individual. Also, if an individual who doesn't follow the government closely sees a celebrity who seems knowledgeable speak about politics, then they may be more likely to listen.

Overall, however, a celebrity has little power to change social policies.

"Politicians are still going to be more concerned with keeping their constituents happy than what a celebrity thinks," Frizzell said. "Our reception of information is so colored by previously held beliefs that it is unlikely that a celebrity will change someone's opinion."

Frizzell said the only thing celebrity endorsement typically affects is the amount of awareness of an issue.

Susan K. Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, disagrees.

She wrote a recent blog post for Pyschology Today on a study conducted by a team of Dutch researchers on why famous faces sell.

In the study, a group of young women were shown images of shoes coupled with faces of celebrities and pictures of the same shoes with non-famous women. The areas of the brain involving emotional stimuli were more likely to be activated when the product was coupled with a famous and familiar face, illustrating the transfer of positive feelings between stars and products.

Whitbourne said that the same emotional connection can occur with social issues, thus influencing opinions.

She acknowledges that celebrities can create more public awareness about social issues, which she thinks can be beneficial to people who would otherwise remain ill informed.

In her article, she provides a series of suggestions to avoid a situation where feelings cloud judgment, which include understanding the difference between fame and expertise and turning off your emotions when making purchasing decisions.

"If someone is after you to make a donation or support a cause you really have to explore the validity of that cause based on your own moral compass and values," Whitbourne said.

While it may be difficult to sway opinion for someone who is set in their ways, celebrities have the ability to reach younger generations who may not have formulated opinions.

David J. Jackson, an associate professor of American Government at Bowling Green State University, researched the correlation between media use and political decision making among 18 to 23-year-olds. Jackson asked several young adults to rate their approval of a policy from George W. Bush. He analyzed their ideologies and found they were not Bush supporters. One group of students was just asked about the policy, while the another was asked about the same policy but with an endorsement from Bono, lead singer of the band U2.

Though no opinions changed, approval for the policy improved with the celebrity endorsement. Jackson concluded that a star's power only worked to compound or create beliefs, but not shift them. He also found it could slightly raise approval despite current beliefs.

Jackson disagrees with Whitbourne. He thinks there should be concerned for low-information voters, especially because they could base voting decisions on what an equally unaware celebrity may say.

EMAIL: jferguson@desnews.com, TWITTER: @joeyferguson

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