Why local councils are using celebrity Cameos to fight Covid-19

Struggling to communicate coronavirus measures to younger residents, local authorities stake taxpayers’ money on Tiger King’s Carole Baskin and Jay from The Inbetweeners.

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Oldham Council had a problem. Over the summer, coronavirus cases were rising in the area, particularly among residents aged between 18 and 30. Official communications about the dangers of Covid-19 were cutting through with Oldham’s older population, but the council struggled to reach the young.

“What we were doing at that point might not have been resonating with them as much as older audiences,” says Liam McCallion, a 26-year-old communications officer at Oldham Council. So he tried something different.

McCallion turned to Cameo, an online service that allows users to buy short video messages from celebrities. A video from Snoop Dogg, Lindsay Lohan or Gloria Gaynor costs hundreds of pounds, but the less well-off can have a former reality-TV contestant wish them a happy birthday for as little as £8.30.

Cameo is generally used by family and friends to buy birthday messages for loved ones from a childhood favourite of theirs. For celebrities, it’s a useful earner at a time when work has dried up.

But it’s also a way for councils to bring a celebrity endorsement to a public health campaign – without having to go through the seven circles of hangers-on, agents and managers.

McCallion scrolled through the roster of celebrities on Cameo and picked someone he thought would resonate with Oldham’s younger residents: James Buckley, best known for playing the annoying teenager Jay Cartwright in E4 sitcom The Inbetweeners.

With a 10 per cent discount from Cameo for ordering its first video, Oldham Council paid the comedy actor “£34.16, or something daft like that” to tell its younger residents about the dangers of Covid-19, says McCallion.

Nearly 100,000 people watched the video through the council’s social media pages alone, and it was exposed to a potential audience of millions more as websites such as the Independent and LadBible reshared it.

“For us to spend £34 and for it to reach thousands, potentially millions of people, shows the impact it’s had,” says McCallion. While he's not able to track how many of the people who watched the video were in Oldham, he says the council has “seen how it’s impacted our own residents, and people who might not necessarily be engaged with local government or politics”.

“The challenge with government coronavirus comms right now is: how on earth do you cut through and get the attention of a population who feel tired, cynical and confused as the result of actions by other branches of government?” says Jay Owens, a media researcher.

Owens says the message worked because the odd combination of a "famous-ish person and an earnest piece of local government information" is inherently funny, "which is a great way to get people to watch". 

See also: Ailbhe Rea on the inherent contradictions in Boris Johnson's statement

Steven Galanis, Cameo’s co-founder, has seen a rise in pandemic-related videos. “It seems to be a pretty popular use case right now,” he says. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a lot of motivational posts for doctors and nurses at local hospitals.” And some celebrities, such as the American actresses Mandy Moore and Busy Philipps, have joined the platform specifically to advise people to stay indoors and wear masks.

“Motivation and cheer makes up about ten per cent of Cameo videos,” says Galanis – and a million of the 1.3 million Cameos recorded by the near-40,000 creators on the platform have been recorded since the start of the year.

Oldham has followed up the success of its first video with two others, one starring James Cosmo, the lord commander in Game of Thrones, and Love Island’s Luke Mabbott. The three videos were bought for less than £130 combined.

The video featuring Cosmo ended up on a Game of Thrones fan website. “It showcases how we’re tapping into people’s interests and being able to funnel through that key message,” says McCallion. “If it saves one life, then in the total it’s money well spent.”

Oldham Council isn’t the only local authority to use the platform. Essex County Council bought a video from Carole Baskin, star of the Netflix series Tiger King, explaining the importance of wearing a face mask and social distancing.

“You’re not just wearing a mask to protect your own health,” Baskin told viewers. “You’re doing it for everyone else’s too.”

The council declined an interview request, but a spokesperson said that the council “recognised that sometimes influencers and celebrities can help us to reinforce these messages to particular age groups within the county. This includes groups that are generally harder to engage with on public health messages when using more traditional channels.”

Baskin currently charges just under £250 per video on Cameo.

Some may say it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, lining the pockets of celebrities, but that misses the point, argues Owens. “Comms has to come to people where they are. And councils have to reach everyone,” she says. 

McCallion agrees: “[The Cameo videos were] attracting audiences that wouldn’t ordinarily follow our mainstream channels.”

The strategy has also appeared in the US, for example with the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Mask Up America” public service campaign, which features clips from actors such as Robert De Niro, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman – and perhaps most notably Paul Rudd’s parody of an appeal to “us millennials”.

“A Cameo spiel won’t convert the most hardened conspiracists into neighbourly masked compliance, sure,” Owens says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. The goal is to just keep reminding the confused: ‘This is what we’re supposed to be doing now.’ Repeat a message enough, across enough different channels, and it will eventually sink in.”

See also: Stephen Bush on the high-stakes test of Oldham's lockdown

Chris Stokel-Walker is the author of YouTubers and writes regularly for Wired, the New York Times and Newsweek.

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