The following post is by Alan Cassels, a pharmaceutical policy researcher at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, a journalist, and author of the The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best-Kept Secret.
Let’s face it, there’s no more efficient way to draw public attention to the state of our eyes, prostates and vaginas than fostering celebrity disease awareness–that is, the use of smart, good-looking and famous people who can be persuasive and very believable when they take on a health cause.
One of the first questions we have when we see celebrities fronting for certain conceptions of disease (which can be usually treated with a new drug) is: Are they doing it for the money?
In some instances, the “partnership” between the celebrity and the company milking the celebrity for all the awareness-raising they can muster is pretty clear. Sometimes it’s as clear as mud.
For example, the Restasis story we reviewed last week from Fox News made it pretty clear that Marisa Tomei, a famous actress, was working on the company’s dime as she “shared her struggle” about chronic dry eye. It was a story so blatantly disease mongered, it could almost be held up as a classroom lesson, and it went straight for the heartstrings and not for the brain: Without a shred of crucial detail that would help separate this news segment from mere advertising, the star of My Cousin Vinny and The Wrestler dove straight for the sympathy of animal lovers in the audience by telling us that by going online and taking the chronic dry eye quiz Allergan will give $1 to the non-profit organization Guide Dogs for the Blind.
— Marisa Tomei (@marisatomei) September 3, 2016
It wasn’t just the reviewers (myself included) who thought this was classic disease mongering: The case of chronic dry eye was used in the 2015 Preventing Overdiagnosis conference as an example of the “formula” for the selling of a disease.
Celebrity disease awareness in Canada, too
Another recent example that American readers may not have seen comes from Canada, where the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wrote about a “stealth marketing campaign involving a drug company, a well-known Canadian comedian, a doctor and a public relations firm.” The very funny and, at least in Canada, very famous Cathy Jones (of the comedy program This Hour Has 22 Minutes) was said to be “on a mission to get women to start talking about female sexual health after menopause — and particularly, their vaginas,” according to a news release issued by the public relations company GCI Group, which was offering her up for interviews. The problem here is that there was absolutely no mention of the drug company Novo Nordisk Canada Inc., which sells a vaginal hormone pill and hence is eager to get coverage of a condition known as vaginal atrophy.
We have written about the needed caution around celebrity health advice several times in the past, like here and here. We’ve seen instances where the connections between the drug company and the celebrity shilling wasn’t disclosed such as with Flying Nun, Sally Fields, and football player Joe Theisman who both fronted for drug companies. We’ve seen Uber-Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps as a defender of the controversial bruise-inducing treatment known as cupping (in which we noted that there weren’t going to be many “gold medals to be given out for news coverage of this pop health fad”).
Kim Kardashian and Angelina Jolie
We’ve seen Kim Kardashian promote a drug for morning sickness and read about Angelina Jolie’s experience with breast cancer. On the Jolie “effect,” a study concluded that “celebrities can successfully raise awareness about a health issue, but it is a greater challenge for health journalists to ensure accurate understanding.” The punchline here is that it is “vital for health journalists to seek out clinical and scientific experts who can communicate population risks in ways that inform, rather than alarm.”
We wish that more journalists had recently taken that advice before writing about comedic actor Ben Stiller’s experience with a “lifesaving” prostate cancer test. Thankfully, Stiller wasn’t promoting a specific brand, but he did promote what we consider misinformation.
That said, not all celebrity disease awareness campaigns make us want to turn off the wi-fi and go for a long hike. Actress Amanda Peet wisely urges parents to vaccinate their kids, for example, and actor Bradley Cooper has encouraged people to register as bone marrow donors. But these examples seem to be the exception, not the rule.
Using celebrities to push disease-mongered conditions is nothing new, and has been thoroughly repudiated in books and articles, but sometimes when we we see it again we wonder if the entertainers are being secretly paid to talk about their health problem or otherwise have a hidden financial incentive.
Celebrity disease awareness is not going away soon, but maybe it could be hooked to the goal of informing consumers instead of misleading them? Maybe we could use even more celebrity involvement in some issues that get virtually no attention? I’ve made the case in the past for having more celebrities promoting important yet unsung causes, such as the suppression of drug research. Here’s to hoping more celebrities step forward and do just that.