Credibility vs. Celebrity
In today’s world of celebrity endorsements, media frenzies, and charismatic speakers, have we as a society lost what it means to truly be credible? Have we become so far disconnected from reality that we no longer care about what qualifications a person has but instead care more that they are known for being known? How can we stop this lunacy, or is it too late? In order to answer these questions, it is important to look at how credibility has changed over the years, how the media age has had an effect on what we view as credible, and how pop culture has played on the gullibility of society; making us believe someone is credible when that may be far from the truth.
The idea of what makes someone credible began in ancient Greece and Rome with the overthrowing of tyranny. At this time, there was a need to enforce some form of government. Democracy emerged as a form of self-government. Important decisions were made by 5-10% of the population. These were mostly well off, well educated, white, male property owners. These people would stand up and speak about what they believed to be best for society during this era. Aristotle realized that there needed to be some sort of guidelines to apply to what makes someone credible or not. Aristotle looked at modes of persuasion; thus, the idea of classical ethos was born.
Ethos, as Aristotle wrote, was built on three premises. In order for a person to have ethos or credibility, they must possess intelligence, good character, and goodwill. Because everyone in power at this time shared similar socioeconomic standing, intelligence was seen as an innate ability that eventuates success. That is to say that is to say that some people are naturally smarter or stronger leaders than others.
It was not enough to be smart, but it was also important that a person be of good character. This would mean that they know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, etc. They should be driven by values morals and ethics not just in theory but as a part of who they are.
Lastly, to considered credible, a person must have goodwill. Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill define goodwill as what is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This means not just acting in a way that is beneficial to yourself, but putting the greatest good in front of one’s personal needs. This was an early example of social utilitarianism.
The turn of the 20th century brought the media age, and along with it a change in how society approached credibility. Prior to the 20th century we were more of a textual society, meaning what was written and read held the most weight and personality played very little into whom we believed and what sources we went to for information. It turns out, what was appropriate in determining credibility in written culture was not appropriate in the media age. At this point in time the idea of ethos was redesigned and reconfigured. The ideas brought in from quantitative research and social science adds a humanistic air to the ideas of ethos.
The transition from the literate to electronic ages makes a difference in how we assess credibility. It is still split into three main characteristics and we don’t get rid of intelligence, character, and goodwill. We just transform them into safety and qualification. We also add the idea of dynamism.
The first characteristic of ethos in the media age is safety. This combines the older ideas of character and goodwill. Safety is the degree to which an audience trusts the source. According to Berlow, Mertz, and Lemart safety can be summed up by saying, “I can trust you because you’re a good person and you want what’s best for everyone/you have an interest in others.” The idea of safety goes beyond the source being trustworthy but entail an affiliative relationship between the source and receiver. In today’s era, we have more that is different than we have in common. To establish safety, the persuader must emphasize the similarities instead of the differences.
Next, we look at qualification. This parallels the idea of intelligence, but goes farther. Because we are a heterogenous society, qualification focuses on what expertise the source has. In order to establish qualification, we rely on experience, education, perceived intelligence, and so on. If we want to consider someone qualified, we want them to be at least as smart as we are in a given subject.
The final characteristic of contemporary credibility is dynamism. This refers to a sources charisma. In the 20th century this has become absolutely vital to credibility. Components of dynamism include boldness, energy, and aggressiveness. When someone shows dynamism, their actions are ones we want to emulate. The problem in popular culture is that if we take someone who only has dynamism and not qualification or safety, we can be moved by someone we shouldn’t be.
With television’s rise, publics have begun to perceive dynamism or charisma as credibility. Too often we’ve gone to the extreme that a person could have no safety or qualification but we see them as dynamic, therefore credible. In the 1960’s television begins to influence people in all aspects of life. Some of the earliest evidence of this can be seen when Ronald Reagan ran for Governor. Prior to this, Reagan was a host for General Electric Theater and was an actor. He was a traveling ambassador and got great name recognition. His election as governor was greatly influenced by this, not his qualifications.
This issue is prominent during the second half of the 20th century and flourishes into the 21st century. We no longer demand people have competency as long as they are celebrities and act credible. An individual’s important and wisdom are attached to their fame, visibility, and popularity. In other words, you could be known for being known, and that is enough. The problem is, these people know nothing, and have done nothing of relevance to the subject they are preaching about. Yet we, as a society, trust them because they are famous.
The end result is an effect on rational world thinking. We fall into these ideas of genetic fallacies. We no longer ask the key question: is knowledge of the sourced based on his or her competence, credibility, and knowledge, or on fame and visibility? It is important to note that the merit of an idea should be determined by knowing the source of the idea, not the person advocating it.
Do you think this is an accurate description of credibility vs celebrity? Would you agree that popular culture has greatly changed the way we look at credibility?
Can you think of examples where celebrities have endorsed things that they may not have been qualified to endorse?
How can you make sure you don’t fall victim to mistaking dynamism for credibility?