Über-celebrities: Bill Gates by Lydia Karch

Noland, Marshall, Goodale, and Schlecht (2009) identify three generations of celebrity involvement with HIV/AIDS in their article entitled “An Exploration of the Impact of Celebrity on the HIV/AIDS Pandemic.” [1] Generation 1 held sway in the early years of the epidemic, from 1981-1999, and consisted primarily of Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John. Generation 2 had a significantly greater membership, as it became cool for celebrities to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS from 2000-2006. Finally, Generation 3 is composed of “über-celebrities” who chair foundations, attend G8 summits, and pour billions of dollars into vaccine research. Generation 3 membership is much harder to come by; Bill Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Bono, and Bill Gates are the current leaders of the pack. The enormous difference between Generations 2 and 3 is that Generation 3 celebrities do not merely advocate for a cause; they have the power to create actual change, both in terms of public perceptions of the disease and policy priorities. Of the aforementioned leaders, I will focus on Bill Gates in this post, as (to me at least) the odd member out of the group.

In 2008, Bill Gates walked away from Microsoft the richest man in the world. He left the company not to go into retirement, but to focus on his philanthropic efforts with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. [2] For such a young organization (founded in 1994), the Gates Foundation is a major player in the global health world, pouring over $15 billion into global health programs during the Foundation’s lifetime, including $2.2 billion in HIV grants. [3] [4] In early 2011, Bill Gates lost his position as the richest man in the world, almost entirely due to the amount of money (one-third of his wealth) that he has donated to the Foundation. [5] Gates now occupies a somewhat Robin Hood-like position in American culture, taking from the rich (himself) to give to the poor. He has become an advocate (as well as an exemplar) for philanthropy and combatting global inequalities, admonishing the Harvard graduating class of 2007 to “take on the big inequities.” [6] In contrast, another man who made billions in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs, did not engage in such public displays of philanthropy, and was consistently berated by the media for his perceived (relative) callousness. [7] If Bill Gates could do it, why not everyone else?

Why not everyone else? Therein lies the mystery of Bill Gates’ über-celebrity status. As Kalichman and Hunter (1992) explain, “identification with a target celebrity results in personal relevance,” which in turn triggers identification with the celebrity’s pet causes or concerns. [8] And while it might seem like Angelina Jolie and Bill Gates are equally difficult to identify with (both so removed from the American norm), there is something about extreme intelligence that is repulsive to the public. Bill Clinton, an undeniably intelligent man, famously appeared on the Arsenio Hall while campaigning to play the saxophone, an act that made him more “relatable.” Bill Gates may be equally talented at playing the guitar, but his public persona does not reveal it. He packages himself (or is packaged?) as the genius who made billions off of Microsoft, and is now turning his intellect and fortune to the challenge of eradicating global inequalities.  He is undeniably “known and talked about,” but this is definitely not his primary purpose; he is first and foremost an intellect and innovator. His celebrity is a secondary function, the byproduct of being so rich in such a capitalist country. So does he really belong with the other Generation 3 celebrities, people who make a living (through the entertainment industry or politics) off of “being known and talked about”? Or is Gates something else, an entity to himself? Perhaps, more optimistically, the first member of a new celebrity Generation of people who gain fame for service work, and then use that fame to drive even more progress and innovation in a positive feedback loop?

[1] Noland, C.M., Marshall, P.D., Goodale, G., & Schlecht, H.P. (2009). An Exploration of the Impact of Celebrity on the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. Journal of Health & Mass Communication, 1(3/4); 194-210.

[2] http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/g/bill_gates/index.html

[3] http://www.gatesfoundation.org/about/Pages/foundation-fact-sheet.aspx

[4] http://www.gatesfoundation.org/hivaids/Documents/hiv-strategy-overview.pdf

[5] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/08/us-wealth-gates-philanthropy-idUSTRE72668V20110308

[6] http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/06/remarks-of-bill-gates-harvard-commencement-2007/

[7] http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/08/29/the-mystery-of-steve-jobss-public-giving/

[8] Kalichman, S.C., and Hunter, T.L. (1992). The Disclosure of Celebrity HIV Infection: Its Effects on Public Attitudes. American Journal of Public Health, 82(10): 1374-1376.

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