March 10, 2006

Can celebrities save world trade talks?

By Sophie Walker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - British rock star Chris Martin leapt
onto the Washington stage, driving screaming fans wild as he
belted out one crowd-pleasing hit after another.

As dazzling lights and glitter burst around the charismatic
Coldplay frontman, captivated fans could have been forgiven for
missing the "Make Trade Fair" logo inscribed on the singer's
piano at the concert.

But if the hundreds of signatures collected by Oxfam
volunteers during the Washington show this month were any
measure, the message was not lost.

While using celebrities to front charitable campaigns is
not new -- the 1985 "Live Aid" concerts for Ethiopian famine
victims made it cool to care -- putting famous faces to work on
dry-as-dust trade issues is a fresh idea.

Movie stars Brad Pitt and Heath Ledger are among those who
have expressed an interest in trade and the developing world.

And with global trade talks going down to the wire before a
year-end deadline for a deal, the big names may multiply.

"Having Chris Martin and Coldplay be frontmen for 'Make
Trade Fair' has elevated the trade debate (and) piqued people's
interest. Politicians realize the world is watching," said
Oxfam spokeswoman Lyndsay Cruz.

The current Doha round of trade talks between nearly 150
member countries of the World Trade Organization has limped
along for 4 1/2 years.

So far, little progress has been made on a pact to lift
millions out of poverty and boost the world economy by slashing
subsidies and tariffs that hobble international trade.

But now there is new urgency: in mid-2007, U.S. President
George W. Bush is due to lose his power to approve trade deals
with minimal congressional involvement, which would make any
eventual deal agreed after then harder to ratify.

So the world's trade ministers are hastily scheduling extra
meetings and urging their peers to take action. Meanwhile,
development agencies are pressing celebrities into service.

In the past month, lobbyists in Washington have been abuzz
with talk that Irish rocker Bono -- fresh from a successful
campaign to urge world leaders to cut developing world debt --
would take on the WTO, adding his voice to numerous agencies
pushing rich nations to make more concessions and cut a deal.

Jamie Drummond, executive director for Bono's lobby
organization DATA -- Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa -- said the
group was planning a "lot of stuff," but gave no details.

"Sometimes it's when you get celebrities to get engaged in
the details of what is normally considered boring ... and the
public get engaged -- and you can actually make change happen,"
Drummond said.

"When even a celebrity can get some arcane part of trade
policy legislation, then the congressmen and the Brussels-based
bureaucrats had better get it too," he added, referring to the
European Union headquarters.

But not everyone is convinced that bringing famous faces
into the debate is the best way to get fast results for the
world's poorest countries.


The WTO deal being discussed is a complex tangle of
formulas and trade-offs, with countries at different stages of
development bringing their own domestic pressures to the mix.
Reducing it to a catchy sound-bite that an actor or singer can
trot out does the process an injustice, some say.

"These stars are extremely well intentioned and think
charities must have exactly the right attitudes -- but the
charities are exploiting them," said Jagdish Bhagwati,
professor of economics and law at Colombia University and
senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bhagwati also accused some aid groups of over-simplifying
the trade debate and singled out Oxfam, which he said was wrong
to ask rich nations to liberalize while insisting developing
countries should not have to.

"When they say that subsidies should be removed, they do
not distinguish between those which don't distort trade (and
those which do). So they are muddying up the debate," he added.

Nonetheless, marketing experts say that in today's
celebrity-obsessed world, endorsement of a simple message by
someone who appears regularly in People magazine is vital. And
the message need just be enough to start the public thinking.

"You have to distill and reduce your message to the point
that it becomes a good headline. On the basis of that good
headline, you hope that people will be intrigued to dig
further," said John Barker, president of New York advertising
firm DZP Marketing Communications.

"Without a famous face to front their cause, these
organizations lack media attention, glamour and, with the more
everyday contributor, credibility."