Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Celebrities and Anti Bullying Campaigns: Star Power May Not Guarantee Desired Results - Audrey Laimins

Bullying has always existed in one form or another among children and teens and has long been accepted as a part of growing up. (1) In recent years, the Internet and other forms of communication have opened up opportunities for more constant hostile and damaging bullying behavior, and the number of websites and organizations devoted to the prevention of bullying has increased dramatically. (2) A spate of recent suicides has brought the media spotlight on this issue, and many celebrities have joined existing campaigns to speak out against bullying. The latest star to step forward, Britney Spears, will join President Obama as part of a new anti bullying campaign launched by the White House. (3) Although celebrity advocacy holds great potential to raise awareness and encourage adolescents to join in the efforts, it remains to be seen whether celebrity support can affect significant change. Those designing the campaigns must exercise caution and ensure that the celebrity presence will work towards the intentions of the campaign. Furthermore, the campaign’s premise must be sound. A celebrity cannot make an ill conceived idea work. This was illustrated in the anti-bullying wristband scheme attempted in England in 2004. The campaign, championed by David Beckham and Bono, backfired when wristbands meant to signify commitment to the cause instead made those children wearing the bands targets for more bullying. (4)

It is critical to understand the mechanics of bullying interactions in order to appropriately design interventions (16) and to best utilize celebrity support to benefit these interventions. In most bullying situations, there are three potential actors: the bully, the victim and the bystanders. (5) Bullies bully because they want to gain status among their peers. Two needs underlie their drive for status: a need for popularity and a need for domination. Victims are usually social outsiders who are rejected by the established peer group, and often lack social support from others. (6) Bystanders can be of two types: the outsiders, who don’t participate in bullying, and those who “assist” and reinforce by onlooking and laughing. Bystanders rarely intervene on behalf of the victim. (5)

There is an unequal relationship between the bully and the victim, with the balance of power belonging to the bully. (16) The bystanders, however, by strength in numbers, have the potential to disrupt this monopoly of power by showing lack of support for the bully’s behavior and marginalizing him/her from their peer group. Studies suggest the bully intervention efforts should not focus on the individual bully or victim alone, but on the dynamics of the peer group, and pro social norms must be established for the whole peer group. (5)

It is unlikely that bullies will want to change their behavior and relinquish control merely by being told to stop. Studies in American schools have shown that a zero tolerance policy is ineffective in eliminating bullying. (7) Victims would most likely want to change the balance of power, but have few effective means by which to accomplish this. Bystanders, however, when acting as a cohesive group, can have significant capability to affect change. The challenge is to motivate adolescents who are neither bullies nor victims to care enough about the issues to educate themselves via websites or PSAs about how they can make a difference. Celebrities could provide a powerful impetus by galvanizing them to care. Celebrities can also encourage victims to seek out information to find support and guidance. Of utmost importance is that celebrity association does not ultimately work against the cause.

This paper will illustrate how celebrities can be misused in three applications of social theory. Some misapplications are possibly due to the assumption that merely the fact that they are celebrities will make the campaign or message successful, while in other cases they may be due to a misunderstanding of the dynamics of bullying and how they should be addressed.


Marketers have been using celebrities in commercials, print ads and PSAs for years because done properly, it works. Celebrities get the viewer’s attention, but whether they can influence the viewer’s behavior depends on whether the viewer trusts and believes their message.

Advertising theory is based on three premises, and advertising is successful only if all three are properly applied. (8)
1) PROMISE: some benefit must be promised for viewers
2) SUPPORT: evidence must be provided that the promise is true, and the viewers must be able to self reference to this evidence. In other words, the ad must present someone SIMILAR to themselves experiencing the aspirations.
3) CORE VALUES: promise and support are surrounded by core values, which have universal emotional appeal, such as freedom, happiness, love, belonging, justice.

Public health campaigns using celebrities usually deliver a clear message regarding promise and core values, but might falter when presenting support. Establishing a connection with viewers to whom they are delivering this message is critical.

It Gets Better is a YouTube project directed towards LGBT teens who are dealing with social isolation, depression and bullying, and who may be contemplating suicide. Its message (it gets better) and core values (acceptance, justice, freedom) are clear. The project solicits contributions from anyone with a YouTube account who wants to share their experiences. Thousands of ordinary people have posted personal testimonies, but more recently celebrities and public figures are participating as well, including Ellen DeGeneres, Kesha, Adam Lambert, Anne Hathaway and political figures Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. (9) Two potential barriers to self referencing exist for LGBT youth observing these celebrity videos:
1) Total aversion to non LGBT celebrities, especially those from an older generation, whom LGBT youth might judge to be incapable of understanding their plight. Obama states, “I don’t know what it’s like to be picked on for being gay..”, immediately distancing himself from LGBT youth. Nancy Pelosi tries a different approach. “As a mother and a grandmother, I want to tell you that a better tomorrow exists.” It is unclear what connection she is trying to establish. Even young popular celebrities might not be able to create an alliance. Kim Kardashian explains how she is bullied on the Internet. “I can read so many positive comments, but the only thing that stands out is one negative comment.” LGBT youth who are teased and bullied every day and never receive ANY positive comments would have little empathy for Kim.
2) Even LGBT celebrities may not be able to establish a link with some youth. Bullied teens struggle with insecurity and low self esteem and often feel inadequate and incapable. They may see such celebrities as Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris and Adam Lambert as funny, smart, talented or attractive, and conclude that of course it got better for them, they had something going for them.

In another antibullying campaign, Demi Lovato is presented in a YouTube video as the spokesperson of PACER’s Teens Against Bullying in an attempt to draw kids and teens to their website, which has information to help students, parents and educators stop bullying. (10) Demi states, “Believe it or not, I was bullied in school”. Why believe it or not? Is it because she is so talented or attractive? Demi never explains why or about what she was bullied, only that words were used to hurt her and she still hasn’t forgotten. It is difficult to imagine how a teen who is being verbally or physically abused every day will be able to self reference to Demi, or feel that she might have anything to offer in the way of help. Although the website contains valuable information that could be of help to a bullied teen, Demi’s message will not likely inspire many to pursue the matter.


Social learning theory postulates that people learn from one another via observation, imitation and modeling. “Most human behavior is learned observationally during modeling and from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed.” (11) This theory seems especially applicable in understanding and influencing behavior in adolescents, for whom peer acceptance and inclusion, which are often based on conformity in behavior, are of utmost importance. One could argue that teen celebrities could be influential in affecting adolescent behavior by presenting and modeling a certain conduct or demeanor. In order to effectively modify behavior, however, it is critical that the celebrity deliver an appropriate message in a compelling manner.

Demi Lovato’s PSA on YouTube is an appeal to teens to visit the Teens Against Bullying website to learn how they can help stop bullying. (10) The appeal includes core values of belonging, acceptance, freedom and justice. “Let’s make a difference because together we’re powerful. The end of bullying begins with you, so let’s all join the movement to end bullying”. What’s lacking in this message is an understanding for the viewers of HOW they can make a difference. It is possible that the victims of bullying might access the website in search of further help and support. However, it is unlikely that those viewers with the real potential to affect change, the bystanders, will be inspired by this vague message since modeling behavior is never introduced, and as a result the viewers might perceive any efforts on their part as futile.

In another attempt at behavior modeling, Demi claims that “bullying is never OK” while the words are displayed in bold graphics on the screen. This statement is obvious to the point of being insulting, as everyone knows that bullying is not OK, just as they know that stealing and lying are not OK. It does not serve to educate or enlighten adolescents regarding the HOW of preventing bullying behavior.

In Justin Bieber’s ad for It Gets Better, he appears insecure, uncertain and timid, looking away from the camera several times. “There’s nothing cool about being a bully. If you’re getting bullied, make sure to tell someone and, you know, it gets better. If you’re a bystander, make sure to step in and, you know, help out.” (12) In this 20 second spot, not only does he fail to be persuasive in the delivery of his message, he almost comes across as someone who might be intimidated by a bully. Despite his celebrity status, he lacks the ability to demonstrate and model appropriate behavior and attitude.


Framing in social theory refers to the presentation or packaging of an issue or idea in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. In other words, how an issue is framed can dictate people’s behavior or beliefs without their consciously choosing such behavior or beliefs. (13) If celebrities are to deliver messages to the public, it is essential that their influence is utilized in a well conceived, properly framed manner.

Bullies bully to satisfy a need for popularity and a need for domination. Whenever bystanders look on or laugh during bullying, the bully’s popularity is enhanced and the behavior is reinforced. (14) Whenever a victim stays home from school to avoid bullying, the bully’s power is established and the behavior is reinforced. Celebrity messages must be carefully crafted in order to prevent reinforcing such perception.

Demi Lovato explains that for her, “the bullying was so bad that I left school and was home schooled. But not everyone has that choice.” It would appear she is suggesting that home schooling was a fortunate consequence for her, which frames the issue as one in which bullies can exert their power, and it is easier to succumb to that power. She goes on to say, “160,000 teens stay home from school every day to avoid being bullied”. Once again, the way this fact is framed the victimization has already occurred, the bullies still maintain power, and the victims will continue to be victims. The perception for viewers is that inevitably, this is the unavoidable end result, and that Demi was lucky to be able to choose to be schooled at home. Even the slogan “It Gets Better” frames bullying in a light that supports the bully/victim dynamic. Yes, it might get better at some unknown time in the future, but in the meantime victims have little recourse but to tolerate the abusive behavior.

For any ad campaign or PSA to be successful, both its message and target audience must be clear and appropriate. In addition, any modeling that is presented must be clear and it must be apparent for whom the modeling behavior is intended; in this case, the victim, the bully, or the bystander. Even if a public health campaign has a clear message and target audience, celebrity presence may actually interfere with its goal. Because celebrities have a tremendous capacity to capture the attention of a teen audience, it is even more critical that what they say and how they say it will serve the purpose and intentions of the campaign.


Most anti bullying campaigns and their PSAs are focused on one of two goals: 1) to offer help to victims of bullying, and 2) to try to eliminate or decrease the incidence of bullying. The first goal is straightforward, and possibly easier to achieve in that both message and intended recipient of that message are clear. Victims know who they are, and once made aware of the opportunity to receive support can choose to seek help and support. Using celebrities to draw attention to a cause serves to augment the number of victims who pay attention to the campaign, and as long as the victims are able to self reference to the celebrities, it is very likely their message will be heard and processed.

The second goal presents more of a challenge and is much more complex. Since in most bullying scenarios there are three involved parties (bully, victim, bystanders), there are three potential audiences for an anti bullying campaign, each with a different reason for their behavior within this scenario. It is unlikely that appealing to bullies to stop their behavior will be successful, as it may result in psychological reactance and an increase in said behavior. The complexity of risk factors that can lead to bullying behavior, including social, environmental, family and prior experiences, make it a complicated task to attempt to affect change. (15)

It might be possible to empower victims and encourage them to stand up to bullies, and while this would improve the situation for the victim, the bully would seek out another victim and continue the aggressive behavior. Studies have shown that intervention efforts should not focus on the individual bully or victim, but on the dynamics of the peer group. (5)

The only real potential to significantly decrease the incidence of bullying is to change the dynamics of the situation, and those who potentially hold the power to do so are the peer group. Peers must understand WHY bullies bully, and then be educated as to HOW they can change the balance of power and remove control of the situation from the bully. 85% of bullying behavior happens for the benefit of an audience. (2) Of utmost importance is that peer groups choose not to support bullies and their undesirable behavior, but instead to marginalize them from the group and give support to the victims instead. Anti bullying campaigns can use celebrities not only to draw attention to their cause, but as educators and role models to encourage peers to get involved.

One recurring weakness of celebrity use in anti bullying campaigns previously discussed is that once the celebrity had drawn attention to their ad/PSA, it was unclear to whom they were delivering their message or more basically, what the message was. In situations where it would have been appropriate and necessary to create a connection with victims, it was more likely they would draw the attention of bystanders/peer groups. In PSAs in which there was potential to exhibit desirable modeling behavior to peer groups, the message was framed in such a way that it would seem that attempting to put an end to bullying would be futile.

Within the context of awareness of message and recipient, certain social theories may lend themselves better to certain audiences. When applying advertising theory to appeal to victims, celebrities must successfully establish a connection in order to be able to convincingly deliver a promise and surround this promise with core values. When the appeal is to peer groups, the connection with celebrities occurs much more readily, and emphasis can be placed on core values of acceptance, fairness, love and community. Although social learning theory can be valuable for victims to better understand bullies and perhaps help improve their confidence levels, it is critical that it is used when addressing peer groups and to utilize celebrities to demonstrate effective behavior. Celebrities must frame their message appropriately in order to deliver a fitting message.


Celebrities hold great potential to draw attention to any public health campaign ad or PSA. Their ability to deliver a promise or convey the core values of that campaign rarely comes into question. Where they may fall short is in providing support for that promise by failing to create an empathetic connection with viewers or by failing to provide a clear purpose and solution.

When appealing to victims, it is imperative that celebrities personalize the issue. If they themselves were victims of bullying at some stage in their lives, they must give specific reasons or tell personal stories. They must be persuasive and trustworthy. If appealing to a certain segment of the population (ie LGBT), they should introduce a close friend/family member who is LGBT and have them relate their story. The stories must be familiar and strike a chord with viewers to fully gain their trust and establish credence.

Self referencing is more likely to occur when celebrities address their message to peer groups. Since peers are not as emotionally fragile and vulnerable as victims, they will not attempt to personalize the issue but rather will be drawn to the celebrity’s narrative and be willing to hear the message. For this audience, the message would probably be more powerful from a celebrity than from an average person. With such an attentive crowd, it is imperative that the celebrity functions as an educator. It must be clear that the message is aimed at bystanders, and that the education focuses on understanding the REASON for bullying behavior in order to comprehend and implement the most appropriate way to manage a bullying situation. “Only you, as a unified group, can make a difference”, “don’t enable their behavior by watching, disable their behavior by not approving”, be cool and stand together against bullies”, “don’t give them what they want, marginalize them”. These concepts can be turned into catchy slogans that celebrities reinforce in public appearances or in ads. Given appropriate material with which to work, celebrities have the wherewithal to affect significant behavior changes in peers’ response to bully behavior.


The use of celebrities to apply social learning theory could have significant positive results in efforts to stop bullying. Celebrities could not only educate teens but model specific behaviors and attitudes that they could apply when confronted with a bullying situation. In PSAs, and ads, celebrities could enlighten viewers by presenting facts in a precise and unambiguous manner. “Did you know that the majority of bullying behavior happens for the benefit of an audience?” “Bullies are desperate to be popular, and as a result do desperate things”. TV shows which already have a captive preteen/teen audience on Disney Channel, Nickelodeon (ICarly, Hannah Montana, etc) could incorporate anti bullying themes into their shows. Many teen celebrities have already become involved in campaigns and could expand on those efforts by encouraging networks to devote some shows to these themes.

One possible scenario could portray a bullying situation in a school playground in which a crowd has gathered. As the bully taunts and jeers at his victim, onlookers become noticeably more and more uncomfortable until one child leaves the crowd and stands at the victim’s side. Soon another joins him, and as more kids join and face the bully, his insults become quieter and less frequent, until finally when overwhelmed by the unified group confronting him, he meekly turns and walks away. The behavior modeled, while demonstrating effective behavior to non victims in managing such situations, would also be beneficial to victims by demonstrating that their situation is not necessarily hopeless and that bullies are not necessarily invincible.

However, the show must be realistic and not ridiculously optimistic in order to have an impact. Overly happy endings will not be effective. The victim can’t suddenly become popular and be effortlessly absorbed into the peer group, as the complexities of adolescent social dynamics are never so easily resolved. What must be made clear is that support and compassion for the victim will take from the bully that which he wants most: power and acceptance. Equally as important is to emphasize that bullies are not necessarily evil people as they may be acting out due to problems in their own lives. It is not the bullies but their behavior that must be rejected.


Proper framing can be challenging to define, and the difference between poor framing and effective framing can be subtle, often a matter of a slight change in word choice. Because celebrities have the potential to readily draw attention to their causes and often have a mindful audience, it is even more crucial that their words are carefully and properly chosen. While spontaneity and authenticity are important, celebrities should be prepped about certain phrasing or concepts that should be part of their message. Demi Lovato’s PSA could be moderately rephrased to create a totally different framing effect. “You can help the 160,000 kids that stay home from school every day to feel good about coming to school.” “I was bullied so badly that I chose to be home schooled. I wish I hadn’t allowed them to intimidate me”.

Celebrities have unmistakable drawing power in capturing the attention of an audience, especially adolescents. Moreover, they hold the potential to significantly influence the attitudes and behaviors of an adolescent audience. As illustrated in this paper, it is critical that those designing anti bullying campaigns not only fully understand the dynamics of bullying, but also appropriately apply marketing theory and social learning theory in a properly framed message in order to fully take advantage of the celebrity status in the most effective way possible.


1 Bullying: Causes, consequences, and practical advice. Available at:
2 Behind Bullying: Why Kids Are So Cruel. Live Science. Available at:
3 Britney Spears Joins President Obama’s Anti-Bullying Campaign – Music, Celebrity, Artist News. MTV. Available at:
4 Anti-bullying wristband scheme backfires. December 8, 2004. Education. Available at:
5 Bullying and its Underlying mechanisms. Available at:
6 Associations of Peer Acceptance and Perceived Popularity With Bullying and Victimization in Early Adolescence. Available at:
7 Anti-bullying practices in American schools: Perspectives of school psychologists – Sherer-2010-Pschology in the Schools-Wiley Online Library. Available at:
8 Siegel, Michael MD. “Advertising and Marketing Theory”. Boston University School of Public Health, SB 721. Boston, MA. 3 March 2011.
9 It Gets Better Project. Available at:
10 You Tube – Demi Lovato Commercial for National Bullying Prevention Week.
Available at:
11 Bandura, A. A Social Leaning Theory. New York: General Learning Press, 1977.
12 You Tube – Justin Bieber on Ellen- Bullying (it gets better). Available at:
13 Siegel, Michael MD. “Advertising and Marketing Theory”. Boston University School of Public Health, SB 721. Boston, MA. 24 March, 2011.
14 Allen, Joseph P., Maryfrances R. Porter, F. Christy McFarland, Penny Marsh, and Kathleen Boykin McElhaney. 2005. “The Two Faces of Adolescents’ Success With Peers: Adolescent Popularity, Social Adaptation, and Deviant Behavior.” Child development 76 (3): 747-760. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00875.x.
15 Why do kids bully? Available at:
16 Bullying Among Young Adolescents: The Strong, the Weak, and the Troubled-Juvonen et al. 112(6): 1231-Pediatrics. Available at:

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