How Popular Culture Influences the Popular Vote

Posted: December 9, 2011 by masonhandke in Mason

These days, it seems that young Americans know more about Snookie, the Jersey Shore actress, than about the War on Terror. This ignorance of important affairs is a major issue, as it leaves many young Americans unable to make an informed decision. However, this ignorance is being combated by an unlikely source: the entertainment industry. For the past several years, entertainment celebrities and television shows have been using their large viewership in order to influence and inform American youth on important issues and political decisions.

While recent technological advances have made it easier than any other time before to access information about issues affecting people all over the world, it seems today’s’ youth are decreasingly likely to know about these events. For instance, a National Geographic survey done in 2005 found that “37 percent of young Americans cannot find Iraq on a map,” despite the US having troops there since 2003 (The Eagle Online 2009).  Woodrow Wilson High School principal Helane Miller tries to explain this ignorance on the news media, claiming that “if there isn’t anything that concerns Americans in a personal way, [the news media] don’t seem to pay any attention to it” (The Eagle Online 2009). This is a major problem, as news media websites are increasingly the main way that young Americans get their news, with “25 percent of the youth” looking at news websites to get information, according to the Bookings Institute (Bookings 2011). With major news organizations not covering many international issues, it seems today’s youth in America will be lagging in knowledge. To make matters worse, only around 45%% of eligible 18-29 year olds voted in the 2004 election, while according to the Washington Post, 60% of all eligible Americans voted (Washington Post 2005, The Tartan 2008). It seems that in recent times, American youth are ignorant and non-active about many important topics. However, many celebrities and writers in Hollywood are using their fame in order to change this trend.

With paparazzi constantly buzzing around many entertainment celebrities, some actors and actresses seem to be on the news and magazine covers more than many countries. For example, the recent Kim Kardashian wedding special brought in over 5 million views, according to MTV (MTV 2011). Some celebrities are using this constant coverage in order to bring awareness to less covered issues. For example, singer Elton John and celebrity Kim Kardashian recently joined in on the 2010 World AIDS Day event, according to CBS news (CBS 2010). The hope is that the constant coverage of these celebrities will mean that the public is given more information about AIDS that would otherwise not be covered by the major news networks. Actors are also using their celebrity in order to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur. Former Northern Irish Secretary Peter Hain claims that the world is “looking away” from the massive amount of killings that are occurring in the country of Sudan (BBC 2007). The article describes how more than 200,000 people have been murdered in the Darfur region of Sudan in recent years, and that the news media and the UN do not seem to be covering the ethnic cleansing adequately. Actors such as Hugh Grant and George Clooney have been attempting to bring attention to the genocide by speaking on the issue, and being active in the protest and activism world dealing with the issue. For example, Hugh Grant attended an “action day” dealing with Darfur (BBC 2007). By going to these events, these actors are bringing the issue to the forefront, as they often bring paparazzi to the events. Actors are not the only ways issues are being addressed in today’s world; increasingly, reality television has been a conduit for problems and issues that are not often adequately addressed.

Reality entertainment television is also using its’ stars in order to bring awareness to issues that are not often covered, such as AIDS, teen pregnancy, and drug use. In the third season of the MTV reality show “The Real World,” a personality on the program, Pedro Zamora, was HIV positive. This was a huge step for HIV and AIDS awareness, as in the early 1990’s HIV and AIDS were still stigmatized, and few talked about the deadly disease openly. According to the Los Angeles Times, Zamora used his time on the reality show to lecture the viewers on the transmission of HIV, and used his newfound celebrity to show the world what living with AIDS was truly like (LA Times 2009). The public responded so strongly and positively to him, that a movie is currently being made about his life and death, further helping the HIV and AIDS information cause. Reality shows, like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, are also hitting teen pregnancy. With CNN claiming that 61 in every 1000 teen girls were giving birth in the year 1991, it is clear that teen pregnancy is an issue (CNN 2011). However, the pregnancy rates have been steadily declining. According to CNN, shows like “teen mom and 16 and pregnant have helped make teen pregnancy a topic of national attention,” and may partially explain why 2010 was the lowest teen pregnancy rate in 20 years, at 39 births for every 1000 girls (CNN 2010). This is due to Teen Mom’s large viewership, in which nearly 4 million people watched the season finale, and therefore allowing the viewers an easy way to start an open discussion on safe sex. With an average American spending 20% of their day watching television, it has become increasingly obvious that reality television is making it possible to reach American youth, and possibly influence their decisions and viewpoints (Nielsen 2011).

While celebrities and television shows have been shown to bring attention to certain issues, it has also become evident they can have an influence on political decisions. The 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain is a perfect example for the influence of celebrities. For instance, the voter-registry group Rock the Vote has been using celebrities for almost 2 decades in order to increase the youth voter turn-out. Using musicians and actors like Eddie Vedder and Jake Gyllenhaal, this group uses it’s famous supporters to create ads and speak at public events to promote young Americans to vote in upcoming elections. In the 2008 elections, youth turnout (18-25) increased by 4% over the 2004 election, partially due to the Rock the Vote campaign (Tartan 2008). Celebrity endorsement of candidate Barack Obama was widespread, and is widely accepted that the endorsements helped to propel Obama into the national spotlight. Musician Will.I.Am created a single titled “Yes We Can” that was made up primarily of Obama speech excerpts, and the music video has been viewed nearly 2 million times on Youtube (Youtube 2008). Celebrity talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who’s show brings in around 13 million viewers each episode, used her popularity to endorse Obama (Zap2It 2011). A recent study from the University of Maryland found that the so-called Oprah Effect brought in over 1 million votes for Obama in the 2008 election (Huffington Post 2009). As Obama only won by around 8 million votes, it can be clearly seen that Oprah had a noticeable influence on the final election results (CNN 2008). Even the United Nations has used celebrity influence in the past. In 2001, actress Angelina Jolie was named a UN Goodwill Ambassador. The UN named Jolie to the position in order to bring “awareness about the refugees” in Africa due to her large viewership, and hopefully to bring about change in poverty stricken countries (UNHCR 2001).

Conversely, some people might claim that while celebrities bring attention to many issues, little change is actually brought about due to the increased attention. Even actor George Clooney claimed that his inability to help Darfur was one of “his biggest failures” (Fox News 2010). However, I disagree with this idea. I feel that by bringing any attention to an issue is good news. For example, while the genocide in Darfur is still occurring, more people are now aware of the problem, and have a chance to voice their opinions in future elections, or even personally send food and aid to the region through charities. And while shows like Teen Mom might not seem to help an issue, they do make it easier for viewers to talk about such problems, and possibly even search out information to help the problem.

In closing, it is been shown that entertainment celebrities and television have been covering political issues more often in recent years. With this increased coverage, it is evident that they are having more influence on real world decisions and actions. From raising awareness about African genocides, to helping elect a president, it seems that popular culture will have be able to change the world.

-Mason Handke


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