Should Celebrities Endorse Health Causes? A Gallery of Winners and Losers

Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters Country musician Tim McGraw greets actress Gwyneth Paltrow as they arrive for the Stand Up To Cancer fundraising telethon at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, September 7, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT)

Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow and other A-list stars lent their names and faces to the Stand Up to Cancer campaign to raise funds for clinical cancer research. In early September, the major U.S. television networks donated an hour of commercial-free prime time for the fund-raising event, and just this week, Paltrow launched the campaign in the U.K. “When I do something, I want to actually do it, I want to commit and put my time in,” Paltrow, executive producer of the televised special, told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t want it to be a B.S. thing with my name on it.”

But the question is, does celebrity involvement in public health causes really help? Two public health experts faced off on the matter in a debate published in the BMJ: according to Geof Rayner, an honorary research fellow at City University London, a celeb’s endorsement doesn’t offer any long-term benefit for public health “for the logical reason that celebrity status is fleeting.” Further, Rayner writes, “celebrities must tread a cautious path of support because of the risk that the celebrity becomes the story, not the campaign.”

Noting that the ubiquity of celebrity, especially on social media, engenders “fake friendships” between the stars and their fans — “followers are encouraged to live with them, through them, and possibly for them” — Rayner argues that celebrities’ influence can easily become unhealthy. He told Healthland in a phone interview that celebrity endorsements should be regulated to reduce the potential for promoting unhealthy products and harmful causes.

(MORE: Jenny McCarthy, Vaccine Expert? A Quarter of Parents Trust Celebrities)

In contrast, Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, argues that a celebrity’s attention can increase publicity and news coverage of important and often neglected issues. Although stars are not experts, Chapman argues they “often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse.”

He writes:

Those concerned about celebrities in health campaigns invariably point to examples that have gone badly wrong or that fail to change the world forever. They 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.

(MORE: Oscar Fixation: Why Are We Obsessed With Celebrities?)

Still, it’s true that when a familiar face crusades on behalf of a public health cause, it draws attention, and that can be a double-edged sword. In matters in which the public is uninformed, for example, they’re apt to put too much weight on a celebrity’s opinion instead of an expert’s: one recent University of Michigan study found that about a quarter of parents trust celebrities on health issues like vaccine use.

And celebrities may also shine attention on certain organizations, even though others may be more deserving, notes ABC News. Reporter Sydney Lupkin spoke with University of North Carolina medical journalism professor Dr. Tom Linden and health journalism critic Gary Schwitzer, who both pointed to Paltrow’s endorsement of Stand Up to Cancer, whose parent organization is a Hollywood charity, Entertainment Industry Foundation, as an example:

Although it raises awareness and research dollars and has a host of celebrity supporters, Schwitzer asked why Paltrow didn’t choose to speak for the American Cancer Society or promote federally funded research through the National Cancer Institute.

There was no winner of the Chapman-Rayner debate, but there have certainly been some “wins” and “fails” in celebrity health endorsements over the years. Check out our brief history, which follows.

Next: Win: Katie Couric and Colonoscopies

Katie Couric

In a bold move, TV personality Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy on live television on the Today show in 2000. She opted to make her procedure public in order to encourage more people to get colonoscopy screenings after her husband died of colon cancer at age 42.

Colonoscopies are seriously uncomfortable, but they can cut cancer risk in half. A 2003 study looked at the “Katie Couric effect” on colon cancer screening by comparing colonoscopy rates before and after her March 2000 show. The researchers found that colonoscopy rates went up about 20% nationwide after Couric’s public exam, and the authors concluded “a celebrity spokesperson can have a substantial impact on public participation in preventive care programs.”