When celebrities speak, the public listens.
So in the case of public health, they can have a heavy influence – both positive and negative.
Brands should not underestimate the marketing potential of famous folk making headlines for a health issue – as long as that star helps to convey the right message.
As TV favourite Ant McPartlin enters rehab, searches on Google for both the celebrity’s name and the term “Tramadol addiction” have peaked.
Savvy marketers in the healthcare industry will no doubt start to use this to highlight public health issues surrounding the use of painkillers, as well as depression and alcohol issues – which the star has also highlighted as being a problem in his life.
When actor Charlie Sheen disclosed he was HIV positive in 2015, sales of home-testing kits increased by more than 8,000 and record numbers of people went online for information on diagnosis and prevention of the disease.
John Ayers, a research professor at San Diego State University was co-author of a study into the Sheen affect, published in the journal Prevention Science.
His team monitored weekly sales of OraQuick, the only FDA-approved at-home oral HIV testing kit available in the United States, from 2014 to 2016. The researchers found that there were 8,225 more sales than they expected the week of Sheen's HIV status announcement. Elevated sales continued for four weeks after the actor's disclosure.
Ayers and his colleagues also found that Google searches for HIV testing and related topics spiked after Sheen's announcement.
Angelina Jolie’s 2013 announcement of a double mastectomy led to increased awareness of genetic testing to prevent cancers.
Although Kami Kosenko, an associate professor of health communication at North Carolina State University, believes the positive influence on public health also led to an increase in unnecessary testing.
Jolie has a mutation in her BRCA1 gene, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. This also led to her having her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in 2015.
Kosenko led a study in which 229 women were surveyed immediately after Jolie's announcement and almost a third of the women said they would probably or definitely get tested.
Professor Kosenko said: "We rely heavily on friends and family for health information, and we tend to see certain celebrities as friends.
“Unfortunately, we do not share the same resources as these famous ‘friends’ which impacts our ability to follow celebrity health advice.
"For example, at the time of Jolie's announcement, the genetic tests she underwent were prohibitively expensive for the average American."
Geof Rayner, honorary research fellow at London’s City University, debated the case for involving celebrities in public health campaigns in two articles published in the BMJ.
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.
There are examples of celebrities doing more harm than good, when passing on a health message without consultation with medical professionals.
Legendary TV talkshow host Sir Michael Parkinson claimed a form of self-diagnosis for prostate cancer was if men weren’t able to urinate against a wall from two feet away.
American actress Suzanne Somers recommended her own brand of medicine to reverse ageing and treat pancreatic cancer, despite a lack of evidence for the therapy’s success.
“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," said Dr Rayner.
But University of Sydney professor of public health Simon Chapman insisted: “Celebrities often speak personally and bring compelling authenticity to public discourse."
For marketers, the answer is in bringing together a celebrity with a strong, personal health experience to work with experts in that particular field.
Health professionals and marketers should utilise the influence of celebrity to amplify the message - but ensure that expert opinion is heard by as many people as possible.
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