The Celebrity Advocacy Case Study – Kutcher vs. Village Voice

What we can all learn from the TV star/social media baron’s public battle with a tabloid

“Still sleeping? How about you wake up and help us convince Congress to  spend money on treatment of real teen problems, not hype.”  — Village Voice

That was one of the most stinging — but not the only — missives tweeted out from the good folks at The Village Voice towards celebrity Ashton Kutcher.

The media was thrown into a tizzy over the Twitter battle which started with a Voice investigative piece — the kind the paper is known, and feared for, questioning both the celebrity’s data and the effectiveness of his anti-child sex trafficking cause. It ended with Kutcher calling for advertisers to boycott the Voice because of their affiliation with a website, which provides adult services listings he found questionable.

Our celebrity idol culture likely finds many things fascinating about a large, well respected newspaper publicly feuding with a celebrity but there are a few lessons here of particular interest to those who follow — or advise — Hollywood stars in their ever increasing fights for a "good cause."

Celebrity Advocacy Lesson 1: Facts Matter

When advocating for a cause, facts always matter. The Voice was doing its job when it did its due diligence in checking the numbers that Kutcher and others involved in this anti-exploitation cause were frequently citing in the media.

Ask any political campaign manager or press secretary. Rule one in dealing with the media: you can’t get facts wrong when trying to draw attention to (or away from) a public policy issue. When the Voice argues wrong facts will mean Congress incorrectly spends money, that argument will hold a lot of weight in Washington, especially in the current climate of cautious federal spending.

An argument that Kutcher's numbers are inflated could — and likely, should — lead to at least some form of gut-check on Capitol Hill. Congress cares about numbers like this and the Voice’s reporting on that won’t go unnoticed. 

Celebrity Advocacy Lesson 2 : Advocacy Can’t Be Self-Interested 

Kutcher’s numbers may have some issues but there's no indication, or suspicion (except by those who always suspect celebrities) that he’s motivated by anything outside his desire to help.

Sure, the argument can always be issued that a celebrity works on issues like this for self-promotion but even if that is the case, contrast a perceived interest on his side with a very real perceived interest on the Voice’s side and the latter comes out with a conflict. Kutcher effectively highlighted the Voice’s perceived self-interest on this issue by pointing to a lawsuit and investigation surrounding the adult services a Voice subsidiary provides.

Again, these are all perceptions and allegations, but suspected motives are relevant to each party’s advocacy of this cause and the direction they each feel it should go.

Celebrity Advocacy Lesson 3: How Best To Help Congress

The Voice went after Kutcher for not working hard enough to push a Senate bill which would provide shelter and counseling to underage victims.

The Voice admitted in their original story that Congress has hardly moved this legislation but they seemingly expect an actor like Kutcher to advocate onthis instead of the mouthpiece role he has served.  

In subsequent blogs and tweets, they’ve continued to hammer on the role they feel Kutcher should be taking — direct advocacy before elected officials.

This is a silly expectation. No senator is going to cite Ashton Kutcher for their impetus to take action on this legislation.

Kutcher knows that.

Kutcher is also smart enough to realize that public attention on this issue through his status as a celebrity and social media baron is the far more effective role for him acelebrity on an important but lesser-known cause.

In fact, the Voice's reporting on the topic might only be due to Kutcher's success at drawing attention to the issue. I expect the Village Voice to fact check and doreporting.

They've done that. I likewise expect Ashton Kutcher to use his celebrity to draw attention to important issues.

I expect neither to be banging down doors on Capitol Hill.