Charitable giving is one of the (unquestioned) pillars of British society.  But is anyone counting the cost of charity to those who take part?

Over the decade and more, charity fundraising events in Britain like ‘Sport Relief’ and ‘Red Nose Day’ have become media spectacles in their own right.  Their public profile have grown beyond recognition, attracting large numbers of celebrities to take part for a worthy cause and generating tens of millions of pounds for the charities involved.

However, several of the challenges undertaken by celebrities include an element of suffering, some even experiencing accidents and injuries. Events have included Eddie Izzard’s marathon challenges, David Walliams’ swims across the Channel and down the Thames, celebrities climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, cycling across Britain, the list goes on. Even the names of the events illustrate the suffering – John Bishop’s “Week of Hell, Davina McCall “Beyond Breaking PointJo Brand’s “Hell of a Walk, Through Hell and High Water, Hell on High Seas.

As marketing scholars, we wanted to ask how these events are constructed and mediatized to gain maximum publicity and what researchers call the ‘politics of pity’.  What images are used and to what effect?  What role does the public play in encouraging these displays of courage and the taking of extreme risks?

We wanted to answer these questions by analysing closely the physical and/or psychological toll that charity fundraising campaigns takes on the celebrities who take part in them.  In our paper published in the Journal of Marketing Management, The Spectacularization of Suffering: An Analysis of the Use of Celebrities in ‘Comic Relief’ UK’s Charity Fundraising Campaigns, we looked at news articles and online reports published between 2009 and 2014 which relate to Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day and Sport Relief campaigns, respectively.  We also reviewed both printed and visual materials published by the BBC, Sport Relief and Comic Relief websites.  In addition, we analysed popular news media coverage (the Mirror and Daily Mail).  Interestingly, the most extreme challenges began appeared from 2012 onwards. We also used tools of interpretation that focused on (a) the subject matter (e.g. group versus individual challenges) (b) format (e.g. fold-out ad or print advertisement) and context (e.g. the purpose of the campaign, degree of fame of the celebrity, etc.).

Our findings led to some new discoveries. First, the media presented these charity spectacles in a certain formulaic way: the celebrity would be photographed against an exotic locale somewhere in the developing world, undertake a spectacular feat of endurance that would likely fell a lesser mortal and, finally, said celebrity would emerge exhausted, scarred but victorious, happy and basking in the adoration of the public and fans.

The themes of

  • physical hardship and pain,
  • hostile Nature,
  • survival against all odds,
  • bravery and heroism

emerged from our analysis of the data. In this way, another exciting discovery was made: the entire experience is cut up into digestible pieces, much like a fairy tale, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The happy ending is always the same.

In modern times, celebrity worship has a dark side.  Celebrities often complain of trolling and abuse by their so-called fans.  The rich and famous are easy targets for envy and jealousy.  Our findings appear to confirm this instinct for punishment theatre.  Thus, the spectacle is made more compelling when celebrities are seen to undertake suffering and privation voluntarily, out of the goodness of their hearts.   But this is not all. They must suffer for the story to have a happy ending.

What do these themes tell us about the apparently benign motives behind charity fundraising? Our research shows a darker side that should be acknowledged.  As a society, how uncomfortable should we become at the lengths and depths celebrities need to go to in order to raise money for charities that appear to be insatiable?

Read the original research article: Lim, M. & Moufahim, M. (2015). The spectacularization of suffering: an analysis of the use of celebrities in ‘Comic Relief’ UK’s charity fundraising campaigns. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(506), 525-545.

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Ming Lim

Ming Lim

Ming Lim is Reader (Associate Professor) in Marketing and Management at the University of Liverpool Management School. Her published research interests include global branding, consumer culture, political economy, ethics and digital research in the humanities and business. Her latest book, Global Branding: Critical Perspectives (Routledge) is out over the summer.

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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.