Celebrities finally swamp advocacy market -- an application of economic theory

After a string of deadly serious blogs on random variables and statistical evidence, industrial policy, the history of development thought, and Afghanistan issues, I think I’ve earned a break to do another (hopefully the last) in our popular series on celebrity advocacy. To keep a bit of seriousness, though, I’m going to propose a theory of international trade between Africa and celebrities. Africa exports stereotypical images of misery in return for celebrities’ advocacy for more Africa funds. The theory of trade says that trade only happens when both parties gain. Celebrities gain some combination of altruistic satisfaction, a good PR image, and a boost for their acting or singing career. Africa gains aid funds.

If there is still any doubt about the Africa stereotype thing, the awesome blog Wronging Rights removed it yesterday by awarding its “headline of the week” to the Independent (Ireland) for the headline "We can't abandon Africa to cannibalism and genocide."

(Thinking of the stereotypes associated with my birth-state, this headline made me imagine a domestic counterpart: “We can’t abandon West Virginia to feuds and incest.”)

As always, things are more complicated than the simplistic theory above. The stereotypes are usually from NGOs, official aid agencies, and journalists outside of Africa, while some of the funds for “Africa” may get eaten up by these same intermediaries – NGOs, the UN, etc. So some proceeds of Africa's exports of misery images gets captured by outsiders, the same as with some of Africa's other exports.

Celebrity benefits, in contrast, do usually go directly to the celebrities. I am sure Bono has noble intentions, but his high international profile as Savior of Africa has not exactly been catastrophic for U2 revenues.

And for a wee bit of anecdotal evidence that celebrity advocacy is bad advocacy, U2 and Amnesty International are teaming up on a concert tour and Demand Dignity campaign in which they are peddling the dubious notion that poverty is best addressed as a human rights violation.

OK getting back to economics, what is the current state of supply and demand for celebrity advocacy? We teach our Econ 101 students that the market price is simultaneously equal to the cost of the last unit produced by the suppliers and the benefit of the last unit consumed by the demanders. A lot of supply drives down the price such that the additional benefit to the demanders is very low.

Supply keeps growing as new celebrities keep entering the sector. 17-year-old Disney Channel star Selena Gomez just visited Ghana for UNICEF as its newest ambassador (I would have missed this except for a tip-off from my 13-year-old). See the mercifully short 32 second video.

The current celebrity advocacy market indeed seems to have abundant supply. At least that was the impression I got from a web site announcing an Oscar-like Awards show for Celebrity Humanitarians. The celebrities being honored including some that I’d never heard of, like Brett Ratner. Even after I looked him up on the Internet, I still can’t remember what he is not famous for. So with the upcoming Noble Humanitarian Awards at which Brett is a headliner, the celebrities are barely trading above the price of used books at this point.

So maybe celebrity advocacy has finally saturated the market, and we could now give advocacy back to people who know something about their causes.

And I think my making fun of celebrity advocates has also saturated my blog market.

I’ll stop if they will.