Can celebrities be good for public health? Experts face off

Kylie Minogue’s very public battle with breast cancer led to more women getting screened. AAP

Celebrities can successfully help promote public health say experts, despite questions about the long-term benefit that might be delivered from hiring a publicity magnet to promote a cause.

In two articles published this week in BMJ, University of Sydney professor of public health Simon Chapman, and Geof Rayner, honorary research fellow at London’s City University debate the case for and against involving celebrities in public health campaigns.

Professor Chapman writes there are some uncomfortable subtexts just beneath the disdain for celebrity engagement in health.

“The main one seems to be an arrogant "what would they know?” reaction. Celebrities are not experts … but playing to the media’s appetite for those experiencing health problems, celebrities often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse.“

There are some great examples where a celebrity has contributed to positive change or built momentum in public health campaigns, said Tahna Pettman, research fellow in public health evidence and knowledge translation at the University of Melbourne. She cited Jamie Oliver and his Ministry of Food as one example.

"Government Public health nutritionists have been trying to advocate for decades about healthy food supply in communities and schools, and Jamie swans in with his gravitas and manages to win government support in establishing healthy school lunches, a foundation to promote healthy cooking, and even win over a few corporates.”

Professor Chapman cited Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer as one example where publicity led to an increase in women getting screened for the disease. He also noted it led to an increase in young women at very low risk seeking mammograms and as a result being exposed to unnecessary radiation and false positive investigations.

“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 causes,“ Professor Chapman wrote.

Dr Pettman said it was important to evaluate the role of celebrities in social marketing activities to establish what was beneficial and what was harmful.

However Paul Harrison, senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Business at Deakin University, said it would take more than celebrity endorsement to change people’s behaviour.

"The action itself has to be easily linked to the endorsement, so with Kylie Minogue people went to BreastScreen, it was able to be linked, whereas eating healthy is quite abstract … it’s not as simple as getting a mammogram, you have to change your thinking about food and adapt your life.”

Dr Harrison said the behaviour being encouraged also had to be normalised, reinforced and easy.

“In a health campaign you can say "you should eat healthy”, but if it’s difficult for people to get their head around it or find it a challenging to eat healthy, then the celebrity won’t have much affect.“

Dr Pettman agreed with Professor Chapman on the need for public health campaigns to be sustained beyond their first burst.

"Having a celebrity promoting a certain message is just one strategy and we know from the evidence around public health and health promotion, to produce sustainable, equitable outcomes we need a wider multi-strategy approach.”

Dr Rayner wrote that rather than relying on media stunts, modern health campaigners “need to go on the offensive against junk food, alcohol, gambling, and other often celebrity linked, commercial propaganda”.

He added that at some point celebrity culture will begin to pall.

“Some celebrities might help, but let’s not look for saviours, buoyed by the happy thought that the work is done when a celebrity is involved. That’s a lie too.”