A headline in The Hill today, “GOP senator: ObamaCare repeal must pass ‘Jimmy Kimmel test’” once again put a spotlight on the impact of celebrity political endorsements. In his statement, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana referenced a monologue from late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, in which Kimmel shared his newborn son had required emergency treatment for a congenital heart defect.
Hollywood & Politics are Old Bedfellows
As the House of Representatives moved to vote on a bill making drastic changes to the Affordable Care Act, Kimmel offered this personal story to plea with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to keep healthcare coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. The video immediately went viral with over nine million views so far. Many political and media analysts have praised Kimmel’s story as an impactful factor leading up to the vote.
Of course, Kimmel is a famous face. But now more than ever, politics and entertainment are enmeshed all the way to the highest corridors in Washington, D.C. This is nothing new, really. Per presidential historians, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman all held rallies featuring celebrities of the time to bolster their causes.
But what did Kimmel’s monologue have that created such an impact on politicians and their constituents alike?
The Impact of Delivery
For one, it was unexpected. Kimmel is widely known as a comedian and not a glossy celebrity weekly regular. For any late-night host to pause from the usual “What’s in the news?” joke machine and take a serious tone catches viewers off guard.
Kimmel paints himself as an “I’m just lucky to be here” everyman, and that resonated with many. He was quick to point out he is a person with the means to get the top-quality care his son needed, but the true tragedy is that many more do not have those means, which means under the proposed new health bill, others living Kimmel’s story would have had a more tragic ending.
Second, Kimmel didn’t give this monologue as a takedown of one party or person. It was an impassioned plea to both sides to work together to find a compromise that wouldn’t put lives at risk. He was also well prepared with citations of research done by the National Institutes of Health to understand congenital diseases.
And lastly, it was clear from the tears streaming down Kimmel’s face this was a deeply personal issue. Few of us could imagine being in the position of Kimmel and his wife, told their son may not survive—and those who do understand felt that old pain. Kimmel also used his own platform to deliver the message, rather than through an interview or a third-party organization. This allowed him to deliver the message his own way.
Did his words impact the House of Representative vote? Not likely, as the House voted to pass its draft of the American Health Care Act. However, Senator Cassidy’s language of a “Jimmy Kimmel test” for the Senate’s companion legislation shows the message was received by many lawmakers.
There is also an impact for communicators considering celebrity endorsements of highly politicized causes. A carefully vetted spokesperson speaking directly to the public in an authentic manner can create an issue defining moment.
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