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PACEspectives: Celebrity in 2017

News Story

This month’s PACEspectives takes a look at celebrity in 2017, and how radically the concept has altered countless facets of American life.

“Celebrity is as celebrity does” is a motto that was coined by none other than the fictional Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Although the Chamber of Secrets was published in 1998, well before the craze of reality television and social media-induced fame took off, JK Rowling’s quip is a prescient observation for what was to come.

For this month’s PACEspectives, our faculty and staff looked at the ephemeral concept of celebrity in the digital age—examining how celebrity, traditionally a lens for lighthearted and gossipy fare, has moved well beyond that spectrum, and has become an ever-dominant aspect in the social, economic, and yes, political life of the United States and the world at large.

Alyssa Cressotti '08, '18
Assistant Director, Social Media and Editorial

I think social media and celebrity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have access to your favorite celebrities—they’re snapchatting from bed on a Sunday morning, they’re showing you their child’s first haircut, they’re live-tweeting the funny thing that’s happening to them on a red eye flight to LAX. But on the other hand, you’ve got this immersive experience that isn’t necessarily entirely authentic. Social media is storytelling and impression management, so the access we think we have as fans is simultaneously deepened and limited by the medium.

Logically, I think we all know that there is no such thing as a candid moment on social media. Nothing is ever accidental and we are only seeing what the poster wants us to see as an audience. For the mega-fans out there who fervently follow their favorite celebs on social and sometimes even get emotionally entangled in what’s happening in said celeb’s life, I would urge them to take a step back and assess what it is they are really seeing and experiencing.

Bruce Bachenheimer
Clinical Professor of Management, Lubin School of Business
Executive Director, Entrepreneurship Lab

Celebrity and Personal Branding 

What’s your personal brand? Can you state what you’d like it to be in a few sentences? How might someone you never met describe you as a brand after an online search?

In terms of a professional career, chances are your brand will not be based on a resume and cover letter. It will likely be shaped by a quick Google search, and your concern should go well beyond what embarrassing pictures might show up. No relevant results could be viewed as a blank resume.

Great companies are generally not looking for people that hope to follow instructions in return for a paycheck. They are looking for talent that can add value by solving problems and creating benefits. Instead of thinking about a firm hiring an individual employee, think about what that firm would look for in a new vendor or contractor.

Think of yourself as the CEO of ‘state your name here’ and figure out how to create a celebrity brand (okay, let’s start with niche micro-celebrity recognition). This is the start of an entrepreneurial mindset. Think about how you can add value and for whom. The company you want to work for should be a customer of your brand.

Up until recently, it was primarily entertainers and politicians that paid attention to their celebrity brand. Now the proliferation of user generated content via social media and the ease of search has created de facto personal branding and the rise of micro-celebrities (e.g. bloggers and YouTubers with a huge following).

So, what would you like your brand to be and how should you go about creating it?


Rostyslaw Robak, PhD
Professor and Department Chairperson, Psychology
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

Why do we love celebrities?

There are two very basic needs that each of us has. One has to do with the earliest moments of our lives: attachment. The other deals with our last moments: death anxiety. Celebrities, and how we view them, play a shockingly important role in at least feigning the fulfillment of these needs.

When we are young and dependent on others, we crave the care of a loving parent. In fact, most mammals have this need. Behavioral veterinarians know that pets who have been abused or abandoned in their youth often turn out to be neurotic or anxious, not unlike similar tendencies in human beings. Because we are especially dependent as babies, our attachment needs make humans vulnerable to the feeling of being taken care of. As a result, we respond to others who can provide this feeling, even if it is only illusory.

Consider the power of celebrity. We readily believe that loving a celebrity will make that celebrity love us back. Not only will imitating a celebrity make us be like that celebrity but it will also bring us that celebrity’s love. As a boy, I adored the baseball player Mickey Mantle and I made sure to swing the bat just like he did. As an adolescent, I adored John F. Kennedy and I, too, never wore a hat! If only one of them had seen me, they would have loved me. Also, I would likely have won the admiration of fellow admirers of Mantle and JFK.

Death anxiety is at the heart of another need that celebrities help fulfill. A body of research known as "terror management theory" is an existentially–oriented approach to understanding fundamental human behavior. In order to cope with the terror of dying, a person will follow cultural rules—such as religion or political ideology—to ensure some form of security for themselves. Believe in God and you will go to heaven, trust your lawmakers because they will keep you safe, and so on. Naturally, the more a person follows the rules, the more likely they will be to avoid death. Importantly, our self-esteem is tied to following (and believing in) the rules.

These needs and beliefs are no different in the world of politics. Studies have shown that voters prefer charismatic candidates whenever danger (death) is evoked. Donald Trump promised jobs and protection from a dangerous world. He promised to protect us ("believe me"). Not only did people believe in him, but because of his success as a celebrity, many people came to believe in the idea of him. Trump's previous track record with the concepts of fame and success meshed flawlessly with many voters’ beliefs surrounding celebrity. And so, Trump used his rhetoric to strike chords that were shockingly close to the core of the average human. He was so sure of this that he said "I could go out in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and I wouldn't lose any votes."

As a scientific endeavor, psychology is able to lead us to an understanding of the power of celebrity. But, knowing about our basic vulnerabilities, each of us still has to make conscious choices about how to respond to our needs for attachment and terror management. On a related note, my batting average never quite matched Mickey Mantle's.