A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Marketing showed that your level of “political salience” — that is, the degree of information about and interest in politics — determines whether celebrity endorsements work on you. The authors found that if you have low salience, a celebrity endorsement will increase your intention to vote for a politician or party by 28 percent (compared with an endorsement by someone who isn’t famous). But if you have high political salience, the celebrity endorsement will lower your intention to support the politician by 11 percent.
In other words, celebrity endorsements are good only for convincing people who don’t care much about politics or follow what’s going on. What happens if the politician is also a celebrity? Say — just hypothetically, of course — a reality-TV star? No studies of that have been conducted, that I’m aware of. But feel free to speculate.
Now here’s a new twist, one that mixes our fixation on fame with today’s political vortex of negativity: the celebrity anti-endorsement. In this phenomenon, a politician who is criticized by a celebrity uses the attack to gain support from people who dislike that celebrity.
Consider Sanders’s campaign website, which features a page literally titled “Anti-Endorsements.” “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” the Sanders page says, followed by a list of famous people, mostly from the worlds of business and finance, who have criticized him. Upon unveiling the list, Sanders said, “These people have a vested interest in preserving the status quo so they can keep their grip on power so they can continue to exploit working people across America.” He added this flourish: “We welcome their hatred." (Sanders is recovering at home after suffering a heart attack on Oct. 1 and has vowed to return to campaigning soon.)
What were the hateful things said about Sanders? To take one example, JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon made the list for saying about Sanders’s economic populism, “Just because it resonates doesn’t make it right.” Frankly, that doesn’t qualify as “hatred” in my book — more like “mild disagreement” — but it was enough to deem him an enemy.
While Sanders has employed the anti-endorsement in its barest form, he is far from alone, of course. President Trump has mastered the technique by complaining about negative reporting of his presidency by the mainstream media, whom he deems an “enemy of the people.” Nor is embracing the anti-endorsement limited to politicians. Recently, many were surprised when Pope Francis said, in response to a journalist asking about U.S. criticisms of his papacy, “For me, it’s an honor that Americans are attacking me.”
The anti-endorsement technique seems to assume there is a kind of transitive property for hate. It goes something like this: Are you trying to figure out if you like and support me? Well, you hate certain rich and famous people, right? They hate me. Therefore, you must like me!
We don’t have any research evidence on the efficacy of this strategy. Personally, I’m skeptical. Anti-endorsements might be seen as a political analog to “humblebragging” — the social media phenomenon of making a self-deprecating comment or complaint that is actually a boast. A humblebrag on Twitter might be something like, “On my way to meet the President and stuck in DC traffic! I never leave enough time!”
My Harvard Business School colleagues Francesca Gino and Michael Norton (with Ovul Sezer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) tested the effectiveness of humblebragging in a 2018 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They found it doesn’t work; people see through it and find it disingenuous and repellent. Humblebragging is even less effective than outright complaining or bragging.
This seems to me the most likely effect of anti-endorsements as well. They display faux outrage and promise brave perseverance in the face of criticisms that are often exaggeratedly portrayed as attacks. Anti-endorsements also openly borrow prestige from the critics they trash as enemies. They are assaults dressed up as victimhood.
Whether I agree with the political messenger, anti-endorsements leave me stone cold, and less likely to support a politician. But hey, maybe that’s just me. What about you, dear reader with high political salience? Do they work on you?