Earlier this month, Jared Padalecki, star of the CW’s Supernatural and apple of Tumblr’s collective eye, announced that he was launching a T-shirt campaign to raise awareness about addiction, depression, and suicide prevention. In a mere two weeks, the campaign sold almost fifty thousand shirts and sweatshirts, according to the charity page. What fueled the support? Fangirls.
Padalecki’s campaign is the latest example of a burgeoning form of celebrity activism—one inextricably intertwined with social media and the nerdiest brand of superfandom. The new activism is kicked off by a star—in this case, the lead of a show that has a massive following on Tumblr—but powered by his admirers. (Incidentally, all examples involve male stars and their largely female fan bases.) The star, in turn, interacts with fans about the campaign, energizing the cause. Everyone feels good knowing they’re fighting for the same thing.
Sherlock clues in the crowd
The pump for this new activism may have been primed by the most iconic of Tumblr heartthrobs, Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch. (I will venture to say that Cumberbatch’s talent aside, Tumblr basically put this guy on the map—they insisted that this kinda weird-looking, vaguely Alan Rickman-voiced British dude was actually the dashing man that he is until we believed it. He has, however, expressed squirminess with the fact that some fans call themselves "Cumberbitches.")
Cumberbatch has taken up many causes over the past decade—and while he doesn't engage with his fandom, his activism has gotten their attention. The mere image of Cumberbatch in a shirt that read "This is what a feminist looks like" was enough to spark a lively conversation about feminism on Tumblr. And by "spark a lively conversation about feminism," I mean draw thousands of likes and reblogs by fangirls.
Cumberbatch's philanthropic endeavors have even inspired fans to do charity work of their own in his name. But his good deeds and his fandom have mostly remained separate—the man doesn't even have a Twitter or Facebook page.
The Arrow shoots for more
Enter Stephen Amell. The star of the CW’s Arrow—the TV adaptation of the DC Comics vigilante hero the Green Arrow—doesn’t have as monstrous a Tumblr following as Cumberbatch, but he’s harnessed his celebrity to begin to create this new model of fan-fueled activism. Instead of keeping his activism and his fandom separate, Amell actively engages fans on Facebook, asking them to join his cause.
In January, Amell launched the Sinceriously campaign, in which he made up a word (“Sinceriously”), canvassed his fans to define it, and sold T-shirts featuring the word and definition. Proceeds were donated to two mental health charities—Stand for the Silent, an anti-bullying and teenage suicide prevention organization, and Paws and Stripes, which helps veterans with PTSD—that were also nominated by fans.
In his first Sinceriously campaign, Amell sold around 24,000 shirts. After deciding to re-launch the campaign (adding different shirt styles and a tote bag) for 48 hours about a month after the original campaign ended, he sold over 20,000 more.
Sam Winchester stakes his claim
Then came Jared Padalecki. It was actually Amell who convinced the former Gilmore Girls star to get into the charity game. Amell told Padalecki that it was “remarkable how supportive the fans are and how much money and awareness they’re able to raise for these great causes,” People reported.
Since 2005, Padalecki has starred as leading man Sam Winchester on Supernatural, a fantasy drama about two brothers who hunt beings that are, well, supernatural: ghosts, vampires, demons, and so on. For the last decade, Padalecki and co-star Jensen Ackles (who plays Sam’s older brother, Dean) have amassed a beast of a fan base, spawning everything from online newsletters to "Wincest" fanfiction.
After Padalecki's friend lost his battle with depression, the star joined forces with To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit that helps those struggling with mental health issues. Over a two-week stretch, Padalecki's campaign sold shirts benefiting the non-profit through the fundraising site Represent.com. The shirts were emblazoned with an image of Padalecki and the mantra "Always Keep Fighting."
Throughout the campaign, Padalecki interacted with and thanked his supporters on Facebook—even taking up one of his fans on a suggestion to write one lucky admirer a personalized letter.
Supernatural has an enormous Tumblr fandom, and his followers ate the campaign up. Mostly because it benefits a great cause, but also because it has Jared Padalecki's face on it, and Supernatural’s fans subscribe to a next-level form of obsession. Case in point:
While Padalecki was a bit reticent to put his own face on the shirt (apparently underestimating the power of his mug on Tumblr), the shirt appears to be making the connection that he had hoped for—and then some:
Celebrities have always used their fame to bring attention to causes. But with stars that enjoy such solid and, frankly, terrifyingly enthusiastic online fandoms, they now have a special opportunity to use their superhero powers for good.