It’s becoming more and more common for celebrities to be a source of health information for consumers. A recent article in the Huffington Post gives examples including Kim Kardashian recommending a morning sickness medication, and celebrities that promote weight loss products and lobby against vaccines.
Why is this happening? In the article Dr. Shelly Campo explains that, because many Americans have low health literacy, it can be easier to listen to celebrities. Our healthcare system is incredibly complicated, and so is health information, so a celebrity we already know and feel we trust can be a better salesperson than a physician or pharmacist.
Given the research we have, this makes sense. Characteristics like charisma and physical or social attractiveness are common among celebrities. Celebrities may even have authority, if we feel like we will be rewarded and accepted for following their advice, or credibility, if we feel that we share values or experiences with them (Perloff, 2014).
The Huffington Post article explains why this can be a bad thing. After all, it isn’t so likely that celebrities always have our best interests at heart. They may be getting paid to sell the product (even if they don’t disclose it), and since they aren’t your medical provider, they aren’t equipped to give you the kind of personalized medical advice you need. Celebrities can also do serious harm to our health system. For example, when many celebrities start to advocate for scientifically unfound claims (such as that vaccines cause autism), and they are able to convince others to disregard medical advance, real problems can develop.
So what is a healthcare communicator to do? For one, improving health literacy among American’s should be a priority. And communicators should seek ways to make it fun and interesting, not complicated and boring.
Additionally, when possible, harness the power of celebrities for good. The Huffington Post article also mentions some positive outcomes, such as increased colonoscopies after Katie Couric televised hers, or an increase in breast exams after Kylie Minogue announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Celebrities who wish to attach themselves to positive public health activities can have a positive impact on our health outcomes.
More than anything, we should be working to give patients confidence about their health, so they are empowered to make smart decisions, and don’t feel as though a celebrity’s advice is the best they have to take.
Perloff, Richard M. (2014). The dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitudes in the 21st century. New York: Routledge.