This week, the British Medical Journal hosted an interesting debate. The hot, pressing question: “Does celebrity involvement in public health campaigns deliver long term benefit?” Though the BMJ didn’t crown a winner, it’s clear the journal was generally uncomfortable. The “No” argument*, from Geof Rayner of City University London, was a broadside against a “celebrity culture” of “rampant consumerism and fantasy lifestyle.”
The “Yes” argument was more positive. Slightly. Here’s how Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney — who acknowledged that there was some value to celebrities — pulled his punch:
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. Celebrities are not experts: they can use embarrassingly naive language and may have no idea about levels of evidence or all the work that has gone before.
When I entered the communications industry, I had a knee-jerk bias against the use of celebrities in campaigns. I liked the science. I liked numbers. I believed, Ross Perot-like, that charts and graphs are enough to win hearts and minds. But that reflected the world as I wish it to be, not the world as it is. After all, TMZ.com alone snags more than 15 million unique visitors a month. And those people are not looking for synopses of New England Journal of Medicine articles. I wish it was otherwise, but that’s the world we live in now.
But it’s not just that celebrities give readers and viewers what they want to see. The best campaigns have celebrities that can tell stories, stories that are difficult to comprehend otherwise. Chapman acknowledges as much: “celebrities often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse.” I’ve written here before about the importance and the power of patient stories, and celebrities simply offer another way of bringing those stories home.
And if that message is delivered to a broader audience because of our fascination with the “fantasy lifestyle,” well, better that a celebrity is talking about their experience with breast cancer or heart disease than sex tapes or reality TV or an answer to the meaningless “what are you wearing” question.
The key caveat in the BMJ debate was the phrasing of the question and the focus on “long-term” benefit. There is not much debate: in the short term, having a media-ready celeb delivering accurate health information with a responsible call to action is a no-brainer. Over the long term, I shudder to think of what Honey Boo Boo is doing to our society. But I’m willing to sacrifice the health of our culture if it means preserve the health of our bodies.
* The BMJ essays reside behind a pay wall, but the journal’s press release gives some flavor of the argument.