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Posted at 01:41 PM ET, 10/03/2012

The Mel Gibson/Tom Hanks experiment: What a new study says about our response to celebrity opinion


Tom Hanks: A man we like more when we agree with him? (Reuters)

In this presidential election season, when celebrities endorse candidates while talking to empty chairs, engage in political debates on Twitter and encourage the rest of us to vote via cleverly edited YouTube clips, a new university study suggests that, perhaps, they might all be better off keeping their mouths shut.

The study, to be published in an issue of the journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, suggests that the more the public knows about celebrities’ personal opinions, the less inclined we are to like the celebrities, particularly if we discover that their views differ from our own. Which, perhaps, is common sense. But thanks to this study, it’s now science.

Professors at the Universities of New Hampshire, Utah and Cincinnati and Vanderbilt University conducted the aforementioned study by staging two experiments in which college students’ responses to celebrity-related information were assessed. The key part of the study, from my perspective, was the portion that gauged reaction to a pair of movie stars who fall on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum: Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson.

Wait, Mel Gibson? The guy who once called a female police officer a name that begins with “Sugar” and ends in a word I’m not allowed to write on this Web site? The man whose explosive arguments with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva were spewed all over the Internet two years ago? Doesn’t his involvement in this scholarly endeavor nullify all of its results?

Actually, no, says Bruce Pfeiffer, one of the researchers and a professor of marketing at the University of New Hampshire.

For starters, Pfeiffer said the students were surveyed before the whole Gibson/Grigorieva mess. And as for all the other baggage Gibson brings to the table regarding alleged anti-Semitism and weird interviews with Diane Sawyer, Pfeiffer said it did not seem to affect the study participants’ generally positive view of him.

“Not only is he at the far opposite end of the political spectrum from Hanks but he is also much more controversial and polarizing,” the professor said via e-mail. “If this was taken into account, however, it did not have a large impact on his level of likability. Although his average rating was less positive than Tom Hanks, his overall evaluation was still positive.”

That is kind of mind-blowing, really. But let’s just move on.

The subjects were asked to read general statements about the careers of both Forrest Gump and Mad Max, then to peruse more specific statements about their religious and political views. (Hanks was identified as a Democrat who supports gay marriage and converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity when he married Rita Wilson. Gibson was characterized as a Republican who is anti-abortion and a “Traditionalist Catholic.”)

Across the board, subjects thought of both men less favorably once they read these details, but self-identified conservatives disliked Hanks even more strongly while self-ID’d liberals had the same response to Gibson. The upshot: We all think beloved actors are “just like us” until we find out they’re not, and then we don’t care for them as much.

But wait a second, plenty of celebs are involved in political causes and they still seem pretty well-liked. Pfeiffer’s response: “The bottom line is that stating a belief is fine, as long as very few people disagree with it. Taking a stand on an issue on which there is disagreement will usually result in overall harm to a celebrity’s status among some consumers.” In other words, it’s fine to tell people to vote in a nonpartisan way. But if you tell them whom to vote for, well, some people may decide they don’t want to see “Trouble With the Curve” or watch “Glee” anymore.

One sticking point in all this is social media, which looms even larger in the celebrity sphere than it did two-plus years ago, when this study was conducted. Famous people say potentially polarizing and unlikable things on Twitter all the time and, while it occasionally elicits a negative response, it doesn’t seem to have a long-term impact on their success. If it did, John Cusack and Patricia Heaton would no longer be working, and both definitely are.

Pfeiffer acknowledges that the direct online connections between fans and their idols may be changing the game somewhat, but that our response to the opinions of the rich and famous, as illustrated by his study, are pretty permanent.

“The processes we describe in our research are fundamental, and we believe that people would behave the same way in a decade,” he said.

Do you agree with this? When you hear a celebrity say something that bristles against your own personal philosophy, does it alter your perception of that star or change your mind about seeing one of his/her movies? Or does the social-media-savvy public value celeb honesty more than the notion that Hollywood icons share an identical belief system?

Please post a comment to weigh in. Your responses may be published in the Journal of Celebritological Science, if such a journal ever actually comes to exist.

By  |  01:41 PM ET, 10/03/2012

Categories:  Political Statement | Tags:  Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Celebrity Politics

 
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