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Oscars ‘wokefest’ has turned off viewers, say critics. Does the ‘DiCaprio effect’ on climate prove them wrong?

DiCaprio used his 2016 Oscars acceptance speech to say that climate change ‘is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating’

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Monday 28 March 2022 15:25 BST
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Leonardo DiCaprio speaks about climate change during his 2016 Oscars speech

There has been much handwringing in Hollywood over the fate of the Oscars, which took place for the 94th time on Sunday amid much unscripted drama.

Last year’s Academy Awards drew a dismal 10.4 million viewers, not even making the top 100 most watched TV broadcasts of 2021, amid years of waning interest. It remains to be seen whether 2022’s slimmed-down programme will fare any better.

Critics have cast blame in various directions. The awards have been condemned for their lack of diversity after all 20 acting nominations in 2015 and 2016 went to white actors, leading to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

A third pandemic year, and now Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, may have sapped a weary public’s ability to care much for what happens in Tinseltown. As actor Seth Rogen told Insider recently: “I don’t care who wins the automobile awards. No other industry expects everyone to care about what awards they shower upon themselves. Maybe people just don’t care. Maybe they did for a while and they stopped caring. And why should they?”

Others point to the Oscars’ so-called “wokeness”. The Academy Awards have long been used as a platform for causes, from Marlon Brando’s protests for Native American rights and Vanessa Redgrave’s support for Palestine in the 1970s to more recently issues of MeToo, systemic racism, mass incarceration, LGBTQ rights, animal suffering and climate change.

Conservative publicationThe Spectator this week dubbed the Oscars “a snorefest of nonstop virtue signalling”.

But at least a few high-profile instances offer a weighty counter argument to the claim that viewers switch off to issues aired in the glitzy setting. One such moment has been dubbed the “DiCaprio effect”.

In his 2016 acceptance speech for Best Actor in The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio used about half of his allotted minutes to talk about the climate crisis.

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating,” he said.

Cue eye rolls and grabbing the remote in response to platitudes from a jet-setting A-lister like DiCaprio – even one with a long history of environmentalism and a dedicated foundation for climate issues.

And yet, big data had something different to say. According to one academic study, DiCaprio’s speech caused an immediate bounce in social media activity related to climate change.

The research team, led by Eric C. Leas and John W. Ayers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, analyzed Google, Twitter and news articles following Oscars night. They compared interest in climate change to two previous events – the United Nation’s 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP), where the historic Paris Agreement was signed, and Earth Day.

While DiCaprio’s Oscars speech saw an insignificant increase in traditional news coverage, tweets and Google searches skyrocketed compared to those events.

“Tweets including the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ reached record highs, increasing 636 [per cent]… with more than 250,000 tweets the day DiCaprio spoke,” the researchers wrote, far surpassing the daily average effect of COP and Earth Day.

Google activity was also dramatically higher: searches for “climate change” or “global warming” increased 261 per cent and 210 per cent the day DiCaprio spoke, and remained higher for four more days, representing 104,190 and 216,490 searches.

Professor Leas told The Independent this week that it was a striking example of how people seeking out a social cause away from a top-down organised event, in what the researchers dubbed “organic advocacy”.

He also explained that there were direct links between what DiCaprio said, and what people searched.

“For example, [DiCaprio] said something like climate change is going to affect indigenous people the most, and the word indigenous spiked. Whereas other things related to climate change, like carbon taxes or electric cars, he didn’t mention and they didn’t go up,” Prof Leas said.

“It gives a sense that if you’re clear with messaging, people are going to respond to that message.”

It’s not the only impact that has come directly from an Oscars speech. During her 2018 acceptance for Best Actress for the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand set off a frenzy of Google searches after she finished her speech with the words “inclusion rider” – a contractual requirement that actors can ask for to ensure diversity in cast and crew.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary account later tweeted: “’Inclusion’ is our top search on the night, followed by ‘cinematography,’ ‘in memoriam,’ ‘feminism,’ and ‘rider.’”

Inclusion riders have gained traction in Hollywood – and beyond – in the years since.

DiCaprio’s speech translated into real-world action may be more squishy, particularly since it deals with such a multifarious subject as climate change. “A lot of it is just about getting people to engage with the message,” as Prof Leas pointed out.

However, a separate study conducted by his research team did show concrete action.

“When Charlie Sheen went on Good Morning America to talk about HIV, we showed the hour that he was on-air was the most Googled ever for HIV-related information,” Prof Leas said. “Later, a pharmaceutical company for over-the-counter HIV testing kits reached out, and they also showed that sales for their product went up [at that time].”

DiCaprio’s latest film Don’t Look Up – a thinly-veiled climate change allegory which has smashed streaming records on Netflix - failed to win any of the four awards it was nominated for at Sunday’s Oscars.

Regardless, it’s debatable whether a plea like DiCaprio’s would still pierce through five years on, given the steady bombardment of climate disasters now visible to millions.

And while the A-List crowd vied for the Hollywood spotlight on Sunday, it’s the climate crisis which once again this week stole the show – with a record-shattering early spring heat wave in California.

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