As the press and everyone else is finally moving on from oohing and aahing over one major star’s prophylactic mastectomy “for the sake of her children” a little more than a month ago, it becomes apparent that one aspect of the story somewhat slipped between the cracks. While the media outlets (and the actress herself) reported which facility performed the procedure, not too many picked up on the fact that her personal revelation also represented a huge endorsement for the Pink Lotus Breast Center.
The International Business Times published one of the few articles that discussed the beneficial publicity effect for the facility, which the star name-checked in her Times op-ed and on whose website her face subsequently appeared, encouraging visitors to follow the Center on Twitter and so forth. The author speculates that in exchange for her endorsement, the actress was guaranteed privacy, since in today’s paparazzi-crowded world it should have been virtually impossible for her to keep the procedure a secret.
Maybe we are just so used to stars endorsing companies and their offerings, since there are barely any ads or commercials any more that don’t sport an all-to-familiar face—be it cosmetics, watches, cars, clothes, food, drinks, and, increasingly, medical products. Just in the last few days, another celebrity endorsement made a splash in the news: This time, however, it was the fact that the undesired behavior of a celebrity chef caused several companies to cancel their deals with her, including a pharmaceutical company for which she promoted a Diabetes drug.
Fall from grace
The two cases above illustrate beautifully where things stand with endorsements: We take their existence for granted, rarely surprised by the latest pairing of star and product (except, as earlier this year, by unusual but attention-grabbing choices like a certain male thespian and a classic perfume) and we read about them in the media when the partnerships go sour. What happens in the latter case? How does it affect our perception of the product when the celebrity endorser falls into disgrace? Most certainly, every company will discuss this issue before signing up a famous partner, and it’s a risk to bear. But medical and pharmaceutical firms can count on the “good cause” factor, which seems to give them an extra layer of protection even in those worst-case scenarios.
If asked (and even if not), stars will always stress that the reason for their support of any medical facility or drug is to raise awareness for a particular condition. That sounds just as good as Bono helping the rain forest. And there is of course some validity in that. We tend to feel self-conscious about illness and medical conditions, and having a celebrity come out with the fact that she or he is suffering from it as well and taking active steps towards a cure or similar can help us deal with our situation. Whether we like it or not, our culture has become accustomed to paying more attention to anything that’s promoted by somebody famous than to mere information or content (it’s the singer not the song…).
While there won’t be any harm done in choosing one watch or one car over another because a certain movie star is promoting it, basing your selection of medication or treatment on a celebrity’s endorsement can lead to problems. Even if it is most advisable to consult a physician to make sure that the drug or therapy is right for you, there is the chance that the endorsement persuades people to make a choice that’s not their own or not the best for them. According to an article on CBS News, Dr. Arthur Caplan, professor for medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, feels there is clearly a tendency in the general population not to take such commercials and ads “with a grain of salt and calling their doctors for more advice.” This piece ran when above-mentioned celebrity chef first signed up for the Diabetes campaign, demonstrating that the partnership was already controversial at the time it started (the same article quotes a viewer of her show saying “It would be like someone who goes on TV and brags about how wonderful it is to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and then when he or she gets lung cancer becomes a paid spokesperson for nicotine patches”, referring to the seemingly obvious connection of the chef’s condition and her rich recipes).
Patient education is a priority for all medical companies, whether they are drug manufacturers or facilities. And as divisive as this might be, ads, commercials, and celebrities (whether they are part of the foregoing or use social media, interviews, or other outlets) have become the major channel of communication. As far as endorsements go, however, we are dealing with a person and not a FDA-controlled label or advertisement. We don’t know what might happen. A sense of responsibility as well as a sense of what is appropriate and what isn’t goes a long way to establish a successful relationship with patients and potential buyers, and raising awareness should always involve being aware of the ambiguousness of using celebrities for a cause.
Nanette Gobel, MA