The subjects were asked to read general statements about the careers of both Forrest Gump and Mad Max, then to peruse specific statements about their religious and political views. (Hanks was identified as a Democrat who supports gay marriage and who converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity when he married Rita Wilson. Gibson was characterized as a Republican who is anti-abortion and a "Traditionalist Catholic.")
Across the board, subjects thought of both men less favorably once they read these details, but self-identified conservatives disliked Tom Hanks even more strongly, while self-identified liberals had the same response to Gibson. The upshot: We all think beloved actors are "just like us" until we find out they're not. Then we don't care for them as much.
But wait a second. Plenty of celebs are involved in political causes, and they still seem pretty well-liked. Pfeiffer's response: "The bottom line is that stating a belief is fine, as long as very few people disagree with it. Taking a stand on an issue on which there is disagreement will usually result in overall harm to a celebrity's status among some consumers." In other words, it's fine to tell people to vote in a nonpartisan way. But if you tell them who to vote for, well, some people might decide they don't want to see "Trouble With the Curve" or watch "Glee" anymore.
One sticking point in all this is social media, which looms even larger in the celebrity sphere than it did two-plus years ago, when the experiments were conducted. Famous people say potentially polarizing and unlikable things on Twitter all the time and, while it occasionally elicits a negative response, it doesn't seem to have a long-term effect on their success. If it did, John Cusack and Patricia Heaton would no longer be working, and both of them definitely are.
Pfeiffer acknowledges that the direct online connections between fans and their idols might be changing the game somewhat, but "the processes we describe in our research are fundamental, and we believe that people would behave the same way in a decade."
We'll check back in 10 years and see whether that's still true. And whether we all feel the same way about Hanks and Gibson.