Would you be more likely to quit smoking if George Clooney or Tim Tebow asked you to kick the habit?
In two contending essays published in the open-access journal BMJ on Tuesday, University of Sydney professor of public health Simon Chapman and City University London researcher Geof Rayner disputed the value of celebrity involvement in public health campaigns. Chapman thinks stars can illuminate key issues in a way that speaks to the public, but Rayner thinks their value is fleeting.
“Celebrities must tread a cautious path of support because of the risk that the celebrity becomes the story, not the campaign,” Rayner said.
However, Rayner acknowledges that, in certain instances, a star can shine a well-directed spotlight on an issue, like when British star chef Jamie Oliver took up the banner of school lunches. Oliver has campaigned for schools to provide freshly cooked, nutritious meals, and his Better Food Foundation is working to set up community kitchens where people can learn basic home cooking skills.
Chapman said that many critics of celebrity involvement in public health are less concerned with the utility of using stars to promote causes than they are with the appearance of such campaigns.
“There are some uncomfortable subtexts just beneath the disdain for celebrity engagement in health. The main one seems to be an arrogant 'What would they know?' reaction,” Chapman wrote.
Another common criticism is to point to the fact that the celebrity “effect” is not sustained, but this is not confined to public-health campaigns that involve celebrities, Chapman noted.
The real value in having celebrities as advocates is that they can provide a welcome change from the drier language spouted by scientists and experts, he says.
“Celebrities often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse,” Chapman says.
There’s already some evidence that celebrity actions by themselves can influence general public health trends. One meta-analysis by Austrian researchers published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health examined 10 studies that focused on how suicide rates changed after local celebrities’ deaths. They found there was a slight uptick in the suicide rate among the general population in the month after a star’s suicide was reported in the media.
Other indirect celebrity effects can be positive, however. When Jade Goody, an English reality TV star, was diagnosed with cervical cancer that eventually claimed her life, there was a significant increase in the number of women that sought cervical screening. University of Bristol researchers found that more than 33,000 more cervical screening tests were carried out in Wales during the year following Goody’s diagnosis, with more than 11,000 of that figure occurring in the month of her death.
Even gossip reporters have their part to play.
“Mass media reporting can play a role in enhanced detection of abnormalities, but public-health messages must be communicated effectively to minimize anxiety whilst maximizing case-finding and uptake among nonresponders,” the authors said.
Sports teams can have an impact too. A recent study from University of Memphis researchers found that a community health program in Memphis city schools supported by the local NBA franchise was successful in encouraging children to eat healthier breakfasts.
“This community-school-home initiative using a professional team's celebrity platform is largely overlooked by school districts and should be considered as an effective way to confront childhood obesity,” the authors said.
Chapman admits that celebrity culture isn’t a cure-all. He points to reporting on pop star Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer, which led to an increase in women seeking mammography. While screening probably benefited women in the age range at risk for breast cancer, many young women with low risk that rushed to the doctor’s office were likely exposed to unnecessary radiation and false-positive investigations.
“The ambivalence about 'the Kylie effect' reflects enduring debate about the wisdom of breast screening, but it should not blind us to the potential value of celebrity engagement in important causes,” Chapman wrote.