The celebrity chef campaign is now a pervasive feature of life, but do such campaigns effect change and, if so, how?

Many popular TV chefs have brought food issues to our screens. Think Jamie Oliver’s work on nutrition and cooking skills and his recent assault on sugar. Think also of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s most recent campaign on food waste and previous work on sustainability of supply in the case of fish and on animal welfare in the case of chickens. Just from the diversity of themes covered we get some idea of the complexity of, and at times conflict between, the considerations that we might bring to bear as we make what seem like mundane decisions about what to eat. There is, it seems, much competition for our ethical attention when it comes to matters of the stomach.

This set us to thinking about what sort of change the celebrity campaign can effect and how it works to achieve such change, questions we address in “When people take action… Mainstreaming malcontent and the role of the celebrity institutional entrepreneur”. In this paper we focus on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight (screened on Channel Four in 2011). It was a high profile show about fish sustainability that was widely noted as effecting change in EU fisheries legislation.

From institutional theory, we treat the celebrity chef, Hugh in this case, as institutional entrepreneur. Basically, institutional theory is concerned with what is seen as legitimate or taken-for-granted in our understanding of the world or in the organisation of society. That which is taken-for-granted persists, being unquestioned and unchallenged. But the institutional entrepreneur tries to unsettle what we see as appropriate, acceptable or necessary and to legitimise alternatives. Vividly described as the ‘movers and shakers’ of institutions (Colomy, 1998, p. 271) – this description seems to accord well with the role attributed to Hugh in the European corridors of fishing power.

So, how does the TV campaign documentary, Fish Fight, work to galvanise interest and action? We identified three mechanisms.

  1. Firstly, the plot deploys mythic themes with Hugh as the heroic journeyman responding to a call to adventure. As we join Hugh’s journey, aided by audio and visual effects, we share his growing sense of incredulity and outrage.
  2. Secondly, Hugh personalises an adversary, Tesco, who can be the focus of action. This is an interesting choice of adversary – the UK’s largest retailer and one with which the audience likely interact in multiple ways. Company representatives may be clumsy in their arguments but they also exhibit discomfort and personality. Far from the portrayal of a distant, evil enterprise, this adversary is redeemable.
  3. Finally, Hugh simplifies issues and erases alternative perspective or aspects of a situation that might reveal a multi-faceted problem.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there who have a sense that all is not well out there in the sea. But they really don’t know what they can do about it and they rightly think the issues are horribly complicated, and they are. But here’s a simple one: let’s end discards”.  

Thus it is that, having followed Hugh’s journey, identified a character that we can redeem, and armed with a compelling single line of argument, we might reach for our mobile devices, send an email, sign a petition, re-tweet a Fish Fight feed – and all during the ad break.

The picture of the consumer emerging from our work differs that more commonly portrayed in studies of ‘consumer malcontent’. The more familiar subject of study is more deeply committed to a radical, anti-market consumption. Instead, we identify a mainstreaming of popular malcontent – albeit a malcontent that is relatively superficial and more fleeting. Mainstream malcontent works precisely because of the ease through which it is felt, communicated and channelled to a particular issue and moment. But, does temporary malcontent amongst viewers acting as citizens, translate to change in market place behaviour when those viewers become shoppers or consumers?

Short-term evidence tracks a rather strange, possibly ironic, effect upon consumers. Celebrity chefs do stimulate our interest in food. Fish sales rocketed (25% growth within one week of the first episode for Marks and Spencer’s). Were these sales in the sustainable species Hugh advocated? Certainly there was impressive percentage growth in what had been small markets for more sustainable species such as Coley and Pollack. More exotic fish were also introduced and consumed. However, that didn’t lessen our appetite or market demand for the unsustainable old favourites, cod and haddock (The Grocer).

But, perhaps celebrity campaigns work an effect despite the relatively superficial and short-lived concern they evoke amongst viewers. Perhaps they work through the viewers as citizens more so than on viewers as consumers – and this is where the institutional perspective is particularly illuminating.

Hugh’s effect extended beyond EU fishing law, so let’s consider canned Tuna. Within three months of screening, the major supermarkets and national tuna brands pledged to eliminate the unsustainable practices Hugh had highlighted from their supply chains. A year later, retailers, brand owners and fish conservationists formed the International Pole-and-Line Federation aiming to boost supply of super-sustainably fished tuna. A similar body, the Sustainable Seafood Coalition was formed and rapidly ‘institutionalised’ guidelines on fish sustainability claims. So, substantial institutional change ushered in a new world of ‘appropriate’ or ‘legitimate’ fish related practices, new taken-for-granted understandings in the industry.

And that, we think, explains the sort of change that TV celebrity campaigns might bring about and how they do so. Even short-lived superficial consumer malcontent can, if sufficiently mainstreamed and targeted, trigger important institutional change. The consumer may return pretty much to life as before without further expenditure of ethical consideration if institutional change is provoked by short-lived, easily expressed outrage.

Read the original research article: Hopkinson, G.C., & Cronin, J. (2015). ‘When people take action ….’ Mainstreaming malcontent and the role of the celebrity institutional entrepreneur. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(13-14), 1383-1402.

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Gillian Hopkinson

Gillian Hopkinson

Gillian Hopkinson is Senior Lecturer in Marketing within Lancaster University Management School. Gillian’s research focuses on retail channels, power and change within food systems. Publications on these themes have appeared in the Journal of Marketing Management, Marketing Theory, International Journal of Management Reviews and Industrial Marketing Management.

James Cronin

James Cronin

James Cronin is a lecturer of marketing at Lancaster University Management School. His research interests are related to consumer behaviour and the food marketplace. His work appears in journals including Sociology of Health & Illness, European Journal of Marketing, Consumption, Markets & Culture, and Journal of Marketing Management.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.