Are celebrity endorsements of health causes a good idea?


Celebrities often endorse health causes -- think Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s disease, Montel Williams and multiple sclerosis, Rosie O’Donnell and desmoid tumors.

Then think Jenny McCarthy and autism -- and her conviction that it is caused by childhood vaccines.

Clearly, celebrity endorsements are a double-edged sword.

This week’s edition of the British Medical Journal poses the question “Does celebrity involvement in public health campaigns deliver long-term benefit?” and offers up two very different opinions.


Coming down on the “yes” side is Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney in Australia. Saying “no” is Geof Rayner, honorary research fellow at City University London in Britain.

This from Chapman (and sorry, the journal makes you pay to read the whole thing):

“Those concerned about celebrities in health campaigns invariably point to examples that have gone badly wrong or that fail to change the world forever. Then hone in on celebrity endorsement of flaky complementary medicine or quack diets, ridicule incidents where celebrities have wandered off message or blundered, or point out cases where celebrity ‘effects’ are not sustained, a problem not confined to campaigns using celebrities. But they are silent about the many examples of celebrity engagement that have massively amplified becalmed news coverage about important neglected problems or celebrity involvement in advocacy campaigns to promote evidence based health policy reform.”

Chapman wrote that there’s a disdainful “what would they know?” cynicism about celebrities but that they bring topics to life, even if the language they use is inexpert, compared with scientific experts who can all too often be dull as ditch water in their presentation of a topic.

Rayner argued

... well, he mostly seemed to argue that celebrities are bad for the job because they are rich and privileged and because celebrity culture “promote[s] icons of rampant consumerism and fantasy lifestyle.”

“New measures are certainly needed to promote public health,” he added, but he favored “campaign groups like 38 degrees [that] bring together the lobbying power of thousands of ordinary people through the Internet.”

There are agencies who make a business out of matching celebrities to health causes. Indeed, it may not always be that a star wakes up one day and decides that she or he wants passionately to do something about ataxia-telangiectasia or the plight of those afflicted with Aspergillosis.

Here’s one agency called All American Speakers. On its Web page, it lists a broad array of medical conditions -- dialysis, disability awareness, diverticulitis, double bypass surgery, on and on -- and explains: “Let us help you find the right spokesperson, handle all of the details in locating and negotiating your celebrity endorsement or special event. You will get the most competitive prices for your celebrity talent.”

And here’s another one, Rx Entertainment, a “celebrity procurement agency that works exclusively with the healthcare industry. Our primary focus is to match products and services with celebrities and entertainment properties to create credible, performance-driven endorsement campaigns.”

Wrong? Or, who cares? Here is a dissected case by Chapman of a celebrity endorsement that became well-known in Australia. It featured cricketer Shane Warne -- he was paid by a drug company to go public with his use of nicotine replacement aids while attempting to quit smoking. His attempt failed, and the media went to town on the controversy of paying celebrities to endorse good causes.

The campaign, however, “caused an unprecedented rise in the use of nicotine replacement therapy,” Chapman and his co-author noted. They took a pragmatic approach about that: Warne was paid to do something good -- he commanded “his market value.” And it helped. Would it have been better if he had refused the whole deal?

Finally, at the BMJ website, you can vote for yourself on whether you think celebrity endorsements are a good idea or not.