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The branding of Africa

When it comes to Africa, it’s all about celebrities. Celebrity campaigns to “save Africa” often play into stereotypes that perpetuate…

By Lindsay Sample , in 2012 Africa: A Continental Confusion Blogs , on February 21, 2012 Tags: , , , , , ,

When it comes to Africa, it’s all about celebrities.

The July 2007 cover of Vanity Affair had 20 different covers with photos of celebrities shot by Annie Leibovitz. “These are incredible people of our time, involved in this effort to make Africa better, to get Africa self-sufficient, and to try to get rid of aids on the continent,” she said.
The July 2007 cover of Vanity Affair had 20 different covers with photos of celebrities shot by Annie Leibovitz. “These are incredible people of our time, involved in this effort to make Africa better, to get Africa self-sufficient, and to try to get rid of AIDS on the continent,” she said.

Celebrity campaigns to “save Africa” often play into stereotypes that perpetuate a single homogenous story about what it means to be “African.”

Viewers are confronted with Africa as “the dark continent,” writes James Michira in his 2002 essay, “Images of Africa in the Western Media” (PDF), a wild jungle full of exotic animals, famine, violence, conflict, disease, and political instability.

“These images are not all that Africa is about,” asserts Michira. Yet it is these unbalanced images that are used for celebrity-based campaigns.

In the media, stereotypical images of Africa are widely distributed when celebrity-based campaigns are given news coverage, while stories written about issues within the continent of Africa are ignored.

As Julie Hollar of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a U.S.-based media watch organization, noted back in 2007, “Following Bono to Africa or reporting on conflict diamonds via Leonardo DiCaprio is both easier and more ratings-friendly than sustaining bureaus and teams of reporters on the ground.”

And a celebrity face that presents a unified understanding of “Africa” and “African” helps generate profits. iPods, Starbucks coffee and Belvedere vodka are among the many products that benefit from this branding of Africa as part of Bono’s (RED) campaign, for example.

What the (RED) campaign and others ignore is that such celebrity advocacy has created misrepresentations which, according to Zimbabwean freelance journalist Innocent Madawo, “overemphasize its [Africa’s] political and socio-economic shortcomings, while playing down or ignoring its potential or even success stories.”

In other words, celebrity advocacy potentially does more harm than good when it comes to constructing representations of Africa.

William Easterly, author of  White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, puts it another way: “Could Africa be saving celebrity careers more than celebrities are saving Africa?“