Entries in Health Campaigns (1)


Researchers Face Off Over Celebrities in Health Campaigns

Ian Gavan/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Gwyneth Paltrow lent her voice (and tears) to Stand Up to Cancer's United Kingdom launch, prompting almost 200 news articles by noon Wednesday. But do celebrities like Paltrow really help the public health campaigns they stand behind?

Two researchers went head to head to answer the question, duking it out as only a public health professor and an honorary research fellow can: in 900-word articles published in the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal.

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, argued that celebrities help by way of offering publicity for an issue.  Although they are not experts, he wrote, they lend personal stories that bring issues to life for the public.

Chapman preempted criticisms by saying celebrity-boosted public health campaigns are often saddled with unrealistic expectations and criticized when they aren't met.  He pointed to the way pop star Kylie Minogue's breast cancer screenings led more women -- including those not in the target age range or risk groups -- to have mammograms, leading to false positives and unnecessary radiation.

"The ambivalence about 'the Kylie effect' reflects enduring debate about the wisdom of breast screening, but it should not blind us to the potential value of celebrity engagement in important cases," he wrote.  "Playing to the media's appetite for those experiencing health problems, celebrities often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse."

Chapman's opponent, Geof Rayner, a research fellow at the City University in London, wrote that celebrities can't help a health campaign because celebrity status is "fleeting" and they aren't ideal role models.

After questioning the unhealthy influences of the public's "fake friendships" with celebrities over social media and pointing out that Ronald Reagan once told Americans what cigarettes to smoke, Rayner concluded that celebrities can't be "saviors" just because they're involved in health campaigns.

When it comes to using celebrities as a shortcut to public health awareness, "You'll never win," Rayner told ABC News in a phone interview.

Other health journalism critics said viewers should weigh celebrity testimony appropriately and consider who is paying for the messages celebrities offer.

Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism critic and professor at the University of Minnesota, said celebrity stories are often presented with expert testimony in an unbalanced way, and the celebrity's experience is often not representative of most people with that health condition because the celebrity often has more wealth and better access to health care.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio