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HindustanTimes Thu,25 Dec 2014
Porn stars and controversial celebrities cannot be role models
Dheeraj Sharma
April 21, 2014
First Published: 01:07 IST(21/4/2014)
Last Updated: 01:17 IST(21/4/2014)

Every election, we see a bandwagon of celebrities campaigning for candidates. This time it’s no different. Candidates take pride in celebrity endorsements.

However, the celebrity campaigning influences the values that constitute the intricate fabric of our society. In other words, what message is sent to society when we have a porn star, an alleged terrorist’s partner, a manslaughter accused, a public miscreant, etc, campaigning during the election? What message are we sending to our youth? Does it really matter? The answer to these questions requires some explorations.

Grant McCracken in 1986 promulgated a theory in a Journal of Consumer Research article, which presents three stages through which celebrities acquire symbolic meanings in a culture and influence individual thinking. During stage 1, the mass media presents celebrities’ images to the public and accordingly, the public comprehends the images or meanings reflected by the images. Stage 2 involves celebrities’ image/meanings being transferred to a particular set of behaviours, styles, and activities. Stage 3 indicates a transfer in meanings from the set of behaviour, styles, and activities to specific individuals. Thus, repeated media exposure makes people often grow fond of celebrities. Overall, individuals develop a ‘psychological closeness’ with celebrities, resulting in a deep and profound influence on an individual’s thinking and living. This model explains that celebrities such as sports stars, actors and singers  often become role models for youth and many of the attributes linked with a role model are related to modifiable behaviour of an individual. Specifically, celebrities significantly influence the way the youth behaves in society.

Today, Indian culture can be typified by its fascination with celebrities. The mass media inundate audiences with many images of celebrities every day. Particularly, susceptible to celebrity influence are the youth. Specifically, when a porn star, a terrorist’s partner, or a tainted celebrity is shown by the media as coveted by journalists, industrialists, and crème de la crème of society; the message to the youth is that this too is an option. In other words, the youth may believe that engaging in these controversial activities is also an option to succeed.

Carol Brooks in her 2004 USA Today article noted that as society becomes more disjointed and dissimilar, celebrities who symbolise up-to-date, dominant values in culture might serve as ‘cultural currency’ among various segments of society who may not essentially have anything in common. The ‘cultural currency’ may assist in the evolution of the cultural entity of society at large.

To empirically replicate the previous research in the Indian context, we conducted a survey. First we found that nearly 78% of the 280 sampled respondents (age 16-25) discussed controversial celebrities (porn stars, strippers, public miscreants, etc,) at least once a day. Second, nearly 86% of the respondents felt that these controversial celebrities were successful in achieving their objectives. Third, nearly 69% of the respondents felt nothing wrong with the antics of these controversial celebrities and considered their career choices as prudent and well-crafted. Finally, nearly 62% of the respondents saw that society will forgive and forget all misdeeds once these controversial individuals become rich and famous.

When I watch news and see controversial celebrities campaigning with our potential legislators, I can only speculate on the cultural entity that is emerging in India. We are guiding our youth to follow behaviour, activities, and styles in life that may not necessarily be the best choices.

This article does not intend to muzzle the media’s right to free speech in covering controversial people. However, accentuating controversial celebrities and presenting them as part of the mainstream should be discouraged.

(Dheeraj Sharma is chairperson and faculty in Marketing Area, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. The views expressed by the author are personal)


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