question of the week: Why are celebrities influential?

Oprah Winfrey Elmo

Forbes’ new list for 2013 of most influential celebrities mystifies me. I can understand why, say, Oprah (No 1) is considered influential because she’s “compassionation,” and why Bono (No 8) is influential because of his activism. But what the heck does it mean that pseudoscience-loving TV doctor Mehmet Oz (No 6) and giver of questionable financial advice Suze Orman (No 9) are influential for their “good energy”? (Presumably the good energy makes their nonsense go down easier?) What does it mean that Martin Scorsese (No 3) is influential because he’s “dynamic,” and Ron Howard (No 4) is influential because he’s “down to earth”?

Not that Scorsese was influential enough for Forbes to spell his name correctly:

Martin Scorsese Forbes
And then there’s the larger question of why celebs are influential at all. It’s one thing to be doing things that have real impacts on people — as could be said about Oprah and Bono — but why are celebrity endorsements of anything beyond their areas of expertise a thing? People selling us stuff, from soda to presidential candidates, trot out famous faces in an attempt to convince us to buy… and it often works! Why? Do we have some sense of famous people as all-around authorities? Is it a subconscious desire to be like the people we admire? What do you think?

Why are celebrities influential? Are there any celebs that are personally influential with you?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTW, feel free to email me.)

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Mon, Mar 25, 2013 10:35am

Because glossy gossip mags (of which Forbes has always been one, really) have nothing better to print?
Some people really like to have someone to look up to and try to copy. I’ve never really understood that impulse.

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 12:59pm

Celebrities are influential because at heart people are intellectually lazy creatures that are incapable of running their own lives without a role model.

David N-T
David N-T
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 2:25pm

I’m not quite sure if celebrities are as influential as it is claimed they are. Certainly, what they say and do is more likely to reach a wider audience than what a non-celebrity does or says, so in that sense, sure, they are more likely to have an impact by simple virtue of having a wider audience to start with. However, if the impact of message were broken down on a per person reached basis, I wonder if the impact of celebrities saying or doing something would be as large as the impact of a friend or parent saying the same thing. That being said, while I’m a bit skeptical regarding the extent of the influence of celebrities, there is little question that it nevertheless exists: I think a large part of it comes from a culture that glorifies fame and material success for its own sake and does its utmost to discourage critical thinking in people. When these two attributes are combined, they form a mix where appeal to authority becomes a widely accepted form of logical argument, and famous successful people become revered as authorities.

Mon, Mar 25, 2013 3:28pm

I can’t recall any situation where a celebrity endorsement has ever gotten me interested in a product, let alone buy it. But I’ve always been a very skeptical, critical thinking kind of person. I don’t buy anything without doing my own research.

Still, It is kind of disturbing how many people ARE influenced by the word of whatever celeb that fancy.

Why is that? Unfortunately, a lot of it is simple materialism. Some strange line of thinking that owning the same shoes that a famous basketball player wears and endorses somehow makes you a cooler person.

To me it just makes you an idiot for being a sucker and wasting $200+ on shoes.

Rinse and repeat.

David N-T
David N-T
reply to  MarkyD
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 6:25pm

So you never saw a film trailer and had your curiosity piqued by a film with a superb cast, or had your ear perk up when you heard that your favourite film director was attached to a given project?

reply to  David N-T
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 8:49pm

I’m pretty sure the conversation entails endorsement outside of movies they may be in or directing. That’s they’re job. I DO get interested when I hear Christopher Nolan or Joss Whedon are involved with a movie project, but I wouldn’t give a rats ass if they’re trying to sell me cookies or a dryer.
Even when my interested is piqued I still don’t jump on board right away. Like people who pre-order video games long before they come out just because of the developer. No, thanks. I always wait for the end product.

David N-T
David N-T
reply to  MarkyD
Tue, Mar 26, 2013 2:45pm

“I’m pretty sure the conversation entails endorsement outside of movies they may be in or directing.”

Okay, so your favourite musical act mentions another band or artist s being a big influence on their sound, or your favourite film director won’t stop raving about how great another movie that he has no involvement with is. I know from experience that I would be interested.

I don’t mean this in a manner that’s directed at you, so please don’t take offence, but whenever the idea that we are influenced by things like ads or celebrities is discussed, there is often a denial reaction that reminds of something Mark Twain -OMG, I’m name dropping!- once wrote: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” The reason for that is that people like to view themselves as independent, strong minded and all that jazz, and admitting to being fooled is in direct contradiction of this, so they deliberately disregard evidence that runs contrary to their self-view. I think that a lot of the effect of influence can be viewed this way: people have a tendency to minimize the extent to which they are influenced by outside forces, and often when its existence is conceded, it’s in a way that becomes how other people are influenced but not us. Part of the problem, I think, is that in order to avoid being influenced in the first place, you have to know that it is happening in the first place and in order to do that, you have to pay attention to it. I believe that reflexive denial that it is happening actually makes it easier to be manipulated because it bypasses the self-examination necessary to detect and counteract the influence.

“Even when my interested is piqued I still don’t jump on board right away. Like people who pre-order video games long before they come out just because of the developer. No, thanks. I always wait for the end product.”

What qualifies as jumping on board here? Buying a game? I mean, playing the game is ultimately the only way to know for certain whether it is good or not. We can read game reviews, but that’s a form of influence. There’s rental or playing at a friend’s place, but that’s not always an option.

And the line of thinking that wearing a pair of basketball shoes makes you cooler isn’t that strange, if you ask me, we’re soaking in it and we all more or less know that it’s about projecting status. It’s no different from a guy wearing an expensive tailor-made suit from a famous designer.

reply to  David N-T
Wed, Mar 27, 2013 9:36pm

Good writeup. I agree with most of what you say. If a musician I like points out another musician that is similar, of course I am interested. This is their area of expertise. Same with Movies. If Director A, whom I like, is saying all sorts of great things about Director B’s movie, I am going to look into that movie. I readily admit that. I’m more talking about people hawking products outside of their realm of expertise.

I’m a Horticulturist. I’m a plant geek. I’d like to think a recommendation from me about what type of tree, bush, or perennial to buy means something. If I suddenly tried to sell you car parts, would you take me seriously? I sure as hell wouldn’t, because I know nothing about them!

That’s how I feel when I see any celebrity endorsing anything out of their (known) area of expertise.

There comes a time in ones life where projecting any kind of image just isn’t that important any more. Sure, when I was 16 I cared about the shoes I wore. I was stupid and actually thought clothes made you cooler. Trust me, they didn’t help.

I certainly still want to look good, but there is zero outside influence in regards to what I buy and wear. I find it pathetic that there are people(adults!) who spend gobs of money on something just because some idiot rapper or actress likes it,

Jumping on board is putting any kind of money down. I understand the anticipation for a product. A new game from your favorite developer. can be an exciting thing. I still would never pre-order, as there is no guarantee of quality. At least after readihng reviews I have an idea, and can make up my mind without having spent a dime. To each his own, I guess.

reply to  David N-T
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 11:48pm

“The funniest movie since sliced bread!” -Lindsey Lohan
(Nope, not improving my opinion of a movie.)

I think that you are mistaking the quality of a good or service based on the skill of an individual involved in providing it with the quality of a good or service based on the endorsement of someone who was paid a lot of money to give that endorsement.

David N-T
David N-T
reply to  Chuck
Tue, Mar 26, 2013 12:02am

I’m not mistaking anything for anything else, just making conversation. BTW, if LIndsay Lohan is an actress you look up to, then, well… yeah, that’s your business. *backs aways slowly*

Tim Norton
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 6:00pm

I guess Lloyd Bridges was an early influence to me. I remember Mike Nelson’s epilogues. I have never cut anyone’s air hose though.

Tim Norton
reply to  Tim Norton
Tue, Mar 26, 2013 12:25am

Bridges awesomeness sample: On February 19, 1956 on
live-television, in “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” on “The Alcoa Hour” (1955-57), Bridges keeps thetown’s people from beating an innocent Puerto Rican man with a baseball bat. Bridges yelled live, on the air, “You pigs, you pigs, you g_d da_nedstinking pigs!”

Jonathan Roth
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 6:31pm

I think it’s a combination of misplaced empathy and authority.

I believe that celebrity is an accident of media conflicting with the way our brains interpret social cues. Seeing an individual we like on TV or in films gives us a false sense of familiarity and friendship: we see them as an acquaintance in our monkey-sphere. If an individual has praiseworthy talent, the combination of that skill and empathic connection becomes similar to a recommendation or policy from a respected friend.

My big influence is Don Bluth, the animation director, for two reasons. First was that he was the first name I associated with the animation I loved, which meant he also became the means by which I got interested in animation as an art-form, and later as a career.

Semi-fortunately, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a few animators who have worked with him or under him, which was pretty disillusioning. So the second way he was influential in my life was to avoid hero worship.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 6:36pm

By the looks of that article, that’s not so much a list of “Celebrities people find influential” as “Celebrities that Baby Boomers have heard of”.

Edmund Charles Davis-Quinn
Mon, Mar 25, 2013 9:48pm

Wow, that post isn’t just bad it’s Huffington Post bad.

Steve Gagen
Steve Gagen
Tue, Mar 26, 2013 6:58am

I am not sure that celebrity endoresment always works as well as the ad-people hope. When Kim Cattrall was reputedly paid about $1 million to endorse the then-new Nissan Tiida a few years back, the general impression was that her endorsement actually reduced sales. The car sold so dismally it was discontinued. See

Tue, Mar 26, 2013 2:02pm

As soon as Anne Hathaway has an opinion on this, I will know what to say.

Tue, Mar 26, 2013 3:16pm

For some, I think it is a part of being a modern actor. Branding has become a huge part of monetizing them. You’ve all heard of mocktresses, right? Actors can make a living just by showing up to events. People buy it because they are selling their lives, look at how I live. Look at Gwyneth and Goop, Jessica Simpson who makes more selling clothes than she ever did singing. But I agree that Forbes’ criteria seems a little vague!

Tue, Mar 26, 2013 5:50pm

Popular cultural things-and-people have been influential on the actual culture since forever and I think current TV & movie celebrity influence is merely a part of that.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s schmalzy, crappy, incredibly popular novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was influential in the pre-Civil War days, paving the way for non-intellectual “regular folk” to be against slavery in a way they’d never been against it before, if they’d even given the subject a moment’s thought. Harriet herself was a celebrity superstar in the Abolitionist movement.

In the same vein, I remember reading an article about the rise of neo-Nazism in a small, sleepy California town in New York Magazine many years ago — one sixteen year old dropped her neo-Nazi boyfriend (and the movement she was being sucked into) when she found out that Alicia Silverstone, her favorite actor, was Jewish. More recently, our own Vice President seems to have referenced (in a speech he gave) an interview I saw on CNN, where a young soldier said he had no problem with gays in the military working side-by-side with him because he’d loved watching “Will and Grace” and his favorite actors where the ones who’d played Jack and Karen.

Culture affects culture, who’da thunk it? This influence can be for the good or for the bad: John Wayne was a total skeevy draft-dodger in WW2, but he got a lot of mileage on his “I won WW2 all by myself” roles when speaking in favor of the Vietnamese war in the 60s, denouncing then-current draft dodgers as cowards. I like to think he wouldn’t have gotten away with it during the internet age of easy access to information, but who knows.