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24/10/2014

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Should celebrities spearhead public health campaigns?

Geof Rayner and Yoram Chaiter are debating the role celebrities have to play in public health campaigns in our current spat. You can have your say below and any comments we receive will be passed on to Geof and Yoram.

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.

Yours,

Geof

 

Dear Geof,

It is true that celebrity culture has been associated with shallowness and self- centreness.

But one cannot deny the fact that celebrities reach vast audiences, including populations that are hard to reach. We as scientists and healthcare workers are unable to reach out to the masses the way celebrities do. I don't limit celebrities to performers, TV show entertainers and sportsmen. I include also politicians, royalty, writers, and so on.

It is my strong belief that we should use the popularity of such figures to promote health campaigns. But we also need to prepare them, by providing the necessary correct information about the issues we are interested to put before the public. There are talented celebrities who are able to learn such information and pass it over to the wide public. Each celebrity recruited for such a mission must know that it is not a ‘one night stand’, but rather a continuous campaign, led by him/her and the experts behind it.

What would you say if I suggested that the Prince of Wales would lead a weekly programme about healthy lifestyle, exploring different angles of the issue each time? Do you think people would not be taken by it?

Yours,

Yoram

Dear Yoram,

Except in unusual cases, the celebrity’s pathway through life almost invariably pulls them away from scientific or critical reflection. It is also true that scientists and health workers are often poor communicators, although they generate a higher level of public trust which paid-for opinions can never achieve. Nor can there be any disagreement that, on occasion, thoughtful celebrities can have a positive role, providing they accept expert advice and direction.  

But where are and who are these thoughtful celebrities? The Prince of Wales may not be a great example. Certainly he views the environment and sustainability as ‘his’ causes, but in the case of health he has acquired - how shall I put it? - some very strange views. Believing fervently in ‘natural’ or alternative medicine, he spurns all evidence to the contrary.

The celebrity role in campaigns should be limited and expectations kept low; more or less comparable to opening a new supermarket. While we can think of any number of celebrities offering negative role models - that’s where the money is - thoughtful ones are thinner on the ground. My contention is that the problem lies not with individual celebrities, however, but in the economics of our celebrity culture.

Yours,

Geof

Dear Geof,

I agree that few celebrities are ready to plunge into a serious health campaign. Some well thought out projects fronted by a celebrity would be a good start.

Perhaps the Prince of Wales was not the greatest example. Let me suggest Prince William, considered by many the hope of the Royal family.

Celebrities are mortals like all of us. sSme of them have had a bout with a particular illness. Here inIsrael, celebrity Zvika Hadar who hosts the TV show A Star is Born (similar to theUK’s Xfactor) collapsed six months ago during a stress test at a clinic. This famous, cigar-smoking star is now fronting a healthy lifestyle campaign, during which he is given a box that looks like a cigar box. Instead of a cigar, he takes out a fresh cucumber and bites into it. Of course Hadar is being guided by experts who are the official authorities in the field.

You can turn to numerous celebrities, you get replies from some and then you narrow it to the few that can and will actually commit to it seriously.

What is the alternative? Not to try? To rely on our limited capability to reach the masses?

Yours,

Yoram

Dear Yoram,

Royal contributions to health are instructive.  King James’ Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604, marked the world’s first antismoking campaign. Conversely William of Orange encouraged gin consumption, resulting in epic scale alcohol abuse. Current royals are more colourless. Where is Prince William's National Sustainability Challenge?

Zvika Hadar sounds like a good role model.  And Israeli pop transexual Dana International, by promoting recognition of gender difference, has contributed powerfully to lessening discrimination against such minorities.

Such apparently honourable souls are easily outnumbered. Consider Jenny McCarthy, former playboy model and living botox advertisement. On the Oprah show, she promoted her anti-MMR book claiming that the MMR vaccine caused her son’s autism (‘cured’ by her ‘mommy instinct’.)  Rapper Wyclef Jean raised $16 million forHaitirelief. Of $9 million his charity spent in 2010, half reportedly went to travel, salaries and fees, with Jean paid $100,000 for one fundraising concert alone.

Just over 200 years ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant urged that people be educated to think for themselves. Democracy demands that we limit unaccountable power. We don't need more celebrity culture but vaccines against it. That means stronger controls on celebrity product endorsement and greater scrutiny. In the wake of Jimmy Savile we should be learning this lesson.

Yours,

Geof

Dear Geof,

I think Prince William is a promising young man who has a clean image. So, as far as celebrities are concerned, we agree that he could play a positive role. He may be less charismatic than some of his ancestors, but he carries something that is so important to our human existence - hope. With the right professional guidance he can help, because he is popular.

So let us not be so negative about using celebrities to promote health campaigns.

You typecast most celebrities as providing negative examples. I believe in human beings and in finding the grain of good in them.

You also mention Dana International as promoting recognition of gender difference.

You agree with me about Zvika Hadar. That campaign uses his popularity to draw an audience, but the counselling is given by specialists personally to each patient.

This is the preferred way to act, with professional control over the contents of the campaign.

Celebrities that can lead this kind of campaign are few but, as I said earlier, we don't need many. We need the few suitable and willing to carry the campaigns forward.

Not all is dark, and not all is cynical and brainwashing.

Find the few Padawans who can become the new Jedi!

Yours,

Yoram

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
Yoram Chaiter MD is Head of Medical Quality Control of Recruitment Centres at the Israeli Defence Force
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