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24/10/2014

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Should celebrities spearhead public health campaigns?

Geof Rayner and Yoram Chaiter are debating this in our current spat.

Dear Yoram,

Celebrity culture is certainly compelling. It swamps conventional discourse and in so doing promotes shallowness and self-centredness. It justifies inequality and applies the lipstick of glamour to the ugly pig of consumerism. It corrodes critical thinking among the public, betraying the Enlightenment values necessary for science. The case can also be made that it undermines mental health and boosts sales of unhealthy or environmentally-damaging products.

To be sure, a minority of thoughtful celebrities provide a halo effect for health causes, as Jamie Oliver did with school food. Then the media circus moves on. The government is now furiously back-peddling on school nutrition standards.

So, what’s the real issue? Rather than being authentic, celebrities are for sale. Already by the 1970s, Americans were exposed to 500 ads a day – with tobacco ads fronted by the likes of Ronald Reagan, then posterboy for Corporate America. With ads exposure now ten times that figure, celebrities are ranked and product-matched to cut through the noise. The ‘because I’m worth it’ award currently attaches to Brad Pitt, the $7 million-male ‘face’ of Chanel No 5.  Chanel’s largess is not even embarrassing; it bolsters the brand as a superior good. 

We can praise the exceptional few who promote bona-fide campaigns, but they are drowned out by the rest.

Best wishes,

Geof

Geof Rayner
Geof is a visiting research fellow at City University, and the author with Tim Lang of Ecological Public Health: Reshaping the Conditions of Good Health (Routledge, 2012).
Yoram Chaiter MD
Yoram Chaiter MD is Head of Medical Quality Control of Recruitment Centres at the Israeli Defence Force.
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