Celebrity Activism: Raising Awareness of Diseases and Medical Conditions – Part Three

Celebrity Endorsement Vs. Celebrity Activism

To begin with, it’s essential to distinguish the differences between celebrity endorsement of products versus celebrity activism in raising awareness for a cause. Celebrity endorsement is undertaken for commerce, while celebrity activism focuses on cause-related advocacy.

Michael Jordan is a basketball legend and has been associated with NIKE since his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls in 1984. His celebrity endorsement is connected to commerce for the sneaker brand and has netted Michael Jordan a cumulative personal total of over a billion dollars.

“As of 2020, Michael Jordan has made approximately $1.3 billion from his NIKE deal.” (Centuro Global)

Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s, closely ties his celebrity activism to raising awareness for Parkinson’s Disease research. Since its founding, the Michael J. Fox Foundation has raised more than $1.75 billion toward Parkinson’s Research and moved the field closer to a cure.

For more, click: The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

Donna Barojan (Politix) conducted a case study analysis of celebrity endorsements and celebrity advocacy. Her research published in February 2023 finds that “although celebrity advocates and celebrity endorsers generate similarly broad media coverage, celebrity advocates generate media coverage that is more focused on their cause.”

Part Three in our Series examines celebrity activism’s influence in raising awareness of and research for diseases and medical conditions.

Three Keys to Successful Celebrity Activism

In June 2015, Lucy Morillo, a veteran fundraiser and then-CEO of Miami Children’s Health Foundation, published an article on NonProfit PRO titled The Celebrity Factor in Fundraising. She asserted that there are three crucial takeaways on which to focus when choosing celebrities to help raise awareness for a cause:

  1. The celebrity’s connection to the cause has to be organic
  2. The celebrity has to be committed
  3. The cause has to mean something to the celebrity

1. An Organic Connection

It needs to make sense when the public sees a celebrity supporting a cause. Lucy Morillo developed a battery of questions for screening celebrities –

Do the celebrity’s image and beliefs match those of the cause?

Has that celebrity supported similar initiatives in the past?

Does that celebrity have a questionable background that might conflict with your organization?

Ms. Morillo’s foundation inducted notable honorees at her organization’s annual gala. These included Walt Disney, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Gaynor, Beyoncé Knowles, Dwyane Wade, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and Jack Nicklaus. Not only are these names undeniably recognizable, but Lucy Morillo also points out they all had one thing in common – they align with the goals and mission of Miami Children’s Health Foundation. In her own words, “The connection was organic.

2. Celebrity Commitment

Christopher Clinton Conway is a philanthropic advisor serving nonprofit institutions. He believes in building relationships between his clients and celebrities who demonstrate their long-term commitment to the organization.

“The photo op that matters is not the star behind giant sunglasses with enormous prop scissors cutting a fake ribbon. It’s not the event that matters, it’s the sustained support that stabilizes non-profits.” – Christopher Clinton Conway

He cites the example of (former) Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson, who committed to weekly visits to Seattle Children’s Hospital. “He’s a celebrity who truly wants to commit to his community, and he’s in it for the long and not just the publicity.” “That’s commitment.”

3. Something Meaningful

A cause is helped by celebrity activism when the celebrities demonstrate they genuinely care about the cause they are supporting.

Lady Gaga and her then-fiancé, Taylor Kinney, famously jumped into Chicago’s freezing Lake Michigan in winter to raise funds for the Special Olympics. Gaga did the plunge because she has a special place in her heart for the Special Olympics. It was a celebrity feeling moved by a charitable cause and “a very nice surprise,” according to Special Olympics president Casey Hogan.

The most meaningful and successful pairings of causes and celebrities are authentic ones where the celebrity builds or comes to a cause because they’ve been touched.

Spotlight on Three Celebrity Activists

Jimmy Carter

According to the Washington Post, former President Jimmy Carter’s wish to enter hospice care has raised awareness about how families cope with the dying process. Participation of core family members in late-stage planning can yield positive results.

“The decision by former president Jimmy Carter to stop medical intervention and spend his remaining time at home with his family has brought new attention to hospice care.

Hospice care is a form of medical care given at the end of life when medical interventions to prolong life are stopped. The focus shifts to supportive care and helping both patients and their family members cope with the dying process.”

Washington Post, February 21, 2023

Lou Gehrig

ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” was named after the famous New York Yankees baseball player forced to retire after developing the disease in 1939.

Now, 84 years later, Major League Baseball commemorates Lou Gehrig Day on June 2: the same day Gehrig became a Yankees’ regular in 1925 and died in 1941 at just 37 years old. All 30 MLB parks will participate in promoting ALS awareness and raising funds for research. Click on CNN’s story to see Lou Gehrig’s famous “I’m the Luckiest Man in the World” speech:


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(Credit: Lou Gehrig Society)

Michael J. Fox

Regarding celebrity activism associated with specific diseases, no public figure is more clearly associated with calling attention to cause-related philanthropy than Michael J. Fox. He disclosed his diagnosis in 1990 and launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in 2000. The New York Times has called the Foundation “the most credible voice on Parkinson’s disease research in the world.” Since its founding, the Michael J. Fox Foundation has raised more than $1.75 Billion toward Parkinson’s Research and moved the field closer to a cure.

For more, click: The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

His example of cause-related activism is instructive in gauging the positive effect of the “celebrity factor.” In January 2022, Brain Life credited Michael J. Fox with bringing “hope to people with Parkinson’s.”

“The organization has helped improve the way research is funded and conducted.”

“Through his eponymous foundation, the famed actor-turned-activist is helping usher in a hope-filled future for people living with the debilitating disease.”

Michael J. Fox Foundation Announces a Breakthrough

The Michael J. Fox Foundation recently announced a breakthrough: a biomarker for the disease has been found that will allow faster diagnosis and treatment. The new biomarker promises to impact every person with Parkinson’s who can expect improved care and treatments. Plus, newly diagnosed individuals may never advance to full-blown symptoms.

See https://www.michaeljfox.org/news/breaking-news-parkinsons-disease-biomarker-found.

“With gratitude, optimism is sustainable.”

MJF, CBS Sunday Morning, April 30, 2023

In the future, WFC will publish Part Four and Five of this series on Celebrity Activism and Alzheimer’s, based on Hilarity for Charity’s CareCon panel discussions:

  • Part Four: Storytelling: Sharing Stories of Alzheimer’s
  • Part Five: Comedy for Caregivers

Westchester Family Care is an independent in-home care provider specializing in making the home a safe and accommodating place for your aging family members, no matter the condition. Our extensive network of professionals and issue-specific specialists are ready to help you maintain a healthy quality of life. Contact WFC for an immediate family need or when planning for future needs:


(914)223-8067 / www.westchesterfamilycare.com


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