Why Do We Listen to Celebrity Medical Advice?

Medical advice dispensed by celebrities can be harmful

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In recent years, there’s been a trend that involves celebrities acting as health advisors. They use their prominent social standing to offer medical advice and endorse products. And this trend is expected to only continue and increase. Research suggests that a majority of people have heard such endorsements and advice—and that many do in fact act on it.

People are very much intrigued by celebrities and often take what they have to say to heart.

When a celebrity promotes an intervention-based medical research (i.e., evidence-based) that’s great—more people act in their own best interest.

However, there’s also a downside to celebrity endorsement. When a celebrity promotes an intervention or treatment that is not supported by evidence, the effects on the public can be wasteful or harmful.

Despite being an instrument for public health, we know little about the exact nature of celebrity endorsement. We don’t know how celebrity moderates health-related knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. However, there are some hypotheses that attempt to explain the mechanisms of this phenomenon.

Evidence-Backed Celebrity Advice

Let’s first take a look at some celebrity advice that aligns with medical evidence and accepted recommendations.

  • In 1991, Magic Johnson, the famed basketball player, announced that he was HIV-positive. His announcement raised awareness for HIV and AIDS among the public. There was an immediate surge in people calling the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National AIDS Hotline asking for information.
  • In the late 1990s, Bob Dole raised awareness for erectile dysfunction (ED). Dole was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer and subsequently experienced ED, which he went on the record to discuss. Dole also became a spokesperson for Viagra, which is effective in treating ED. In the vast majority of men who have surgery to treat prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction is a common adverse effect because the nerves and the blood vessels controlling erection are particularly sensitive.
  • In 1997, journalist Katie Couric’s husband, Jay Monahan, was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died nine months later at age 42. In 2000, Couric televised her colonoscopy on the "Today" show. In the month following her screening, there was a 21 percent increase in screenings for colon and rectal cancer.
  • In 2005, Australian singer Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer for which she was treated with a mastectomy. Subsequently, there was a 40 percent increase in the number of people seeking mammograms—which screen for breast cancer—in four Australian states.
  • In March 2009, the number of cervical cancer screens doubled in England, compared to the same time the previous year. This rise is attributed to Jade Goody, a British reality television star, who died from cervical cancer.
  • Actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, has raised more than $450 million dollars for the Michael J. Fox Foundation which funds Parkinson’s research.

Inaccurate Celebrity Advice

Now let’s look at some celebrity advice that has proved to be either wasteful or even harmful.

  • Media personality Jenny McCarthy’s opposition to vaccinations for fear that they cause autism is a leading example of celebrity advice gone wrong. This fraudulent association has been roundly debunked and children who don’t receive vaccinations can die from preventable disease.
  • Actress Christina Applegate became an advocate for early screening after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 at the age of 36 and undergoing a double mastectomy. However, Applegate supports the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to detect breast cancer, which is not in line with medical consensus opinion for screening women at average risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Similarly, after being diagnosed with the BRCA1 mutation, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancers in a small minority of women, actress Angelina Jolie chose to have a preventive double mastectomy. Jolie was very public about her struggles and advocacy for awareness. Subsequently, lots of people became interested in getting tested for BRCA mutations. However, BRCA mutations are a rare cause of such cancer and reserved for people who have a strong family history of disease. This increase in testing was neither recommended nor cost-effective.    
  • Actress Susanne Somers supports the use of proteolytic enzyme therapy for pancreatic cancer treatment. She also supports the use of bioidentical hormones to reverse aging. Neither of these interventions is based on medical evidence.
  • On her weekly lifestyle publication, GOOP, actress Gwyneth Paltrow promoted the use of jade eggs inserted into the vagina to help with vaginal muscle tone, hormonal balance, and feminine energy. This advice is not supported by research.
  • British talk show host Sir Michael Parkinson recommended the following for prostate cancer: “The test is if you can pee against a wall from two feet, you haven’t got it.”

Why Does the Public Listen to Celebrities?

Although we can readily point out examples of both good and bad celebrity advice, the mechanisms underlying the influence of celebrity recommendations are unclear. Health researchers are just starting to examine these effects and have some guesses. Here’s a list of 14 hypothesized mechanisms:

  1. Celebrity medical advice may intrinsically alter perception of some audience members.
  2. People follow celebrity medical advice to boost their social identities and status.
  3. Personal advice and success stories shared by celebrities may seem credible.
  4. People—especially those with low self-esteem—form attachments to celebrities who make them feel more independent, competent, and supported by others. These attachments ostensibly drive certain people to listen to celebrity advice and endorsements.
  5. People buy medical services and health products endorsed by celebrities to acquire traits of the celebrity that are associated with whatever’s endorsed. For instance, when a celebrity advertises a weight loss program and claims to have lost weight because of it, fans also want to be like the celebrity and lose weight using the program.
  6. The "halo effect" refers to the generalization made by the general public that because a celebrity is a successful entertainer, their success makes them credible in all matters, including ones related to health and wellness. Thus, if a celebrity gives medical advice because they have experienced success in other realms, then they must be a medical expert, too.
  7. Celebrity endorsements activate parts of the brain that form positive associations. These positive associations make for positive memories of an endorsed product or service.
  8. Celebrity endorsements activate brain regions associated with trust and memory. This activation makes people like the endorsed product or service.
  9. Celebrities trip natural tendencies for people to make decisions based on how others have made decisions in similar situations. This tendency is called "herd behavior."
  10. Celebrity advice spreads throughout social networks and thus affects everybody through countless social connections, gaining prominence and traction.
  11. People rationalize the medical advice of celebrities as beneficial, aiming to alleviate any discomfort stemming from holding incompatible views.
  12. People follow the medical advice of those celebrities whom they perceive as similar to themselves.
  13. People feel good about celebrities and thus feel positive about the products and services that they promote—an example of classical conditioning.
  14. Endorsements made by celebrities serve as markers, or signals, that differentiate one product or service from another.

A Word From Verywell

There’s an old adage: Don’t believe everything you see on television. We live in an increasingly fragmented media environment and celebrities provide endorsements and advice using various channels, including books, magazines, websites, television, radio, podcasts, and social media. Some of this advice is good and some of it is bad; some is selfless and fueled by sentiments of generativity and some is motivated by financial gain.

The next time you hear or see your favorite celebrity endorsing a health product or service, think about why you are so intrigued by the advice. Is it the celebrity or is it the advice? Does the guidance actually sound right and apply to you or a loved one? Would a reasonable person agree with the celebrity? Does the advice require you to buy something?

When it comes to very important health decisions, such as cancer or other disease screening, you should make an appointment with your physician to discuss any concerns and explain what you heard a celebrity say. Remember that the vast majority of celebrities aren’t medical experts. Yes, they may be good at singing, acting, dancing, or playing sports. But as with all specialized skills and talents, these attributes don’t extend to other fields. Your physician has been trained to offer the right advice—advice that’s evidence-based and helpful.   

Sources:

BRCA1 and BRCA2: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testing. NIH. www.cancer.gov

Hoffman, SJ, et al. Celebrities’ Impact on Health-Related Knowledge, Attitudes, Behaviors, and Status Outcomes: Protocol for a Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis, and Meta-Regression Analysis. Systematic Reviews. 2017.

Hoffman, SJ, and Tan, C. Following Celebrities’ Medical Advice: Meta-Narrative Analysis. The BMJ. 2013;347:f7151.

Larson RJ, et al. Celebrity Endorsements of Cancer Screening. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2005;97(9):693–5.

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