Celebrity endorsement is worth big bucks – it’s hard to watch TV without seeing a celebrity advertising the latest make up, sports equipment or holiday destination. But what happens when celebrities start endorsing unproven medical treatments?
Part of being a celebrity involves getting your face everywhere and using your influence to sway others. When it’s something as trivial as suggesting you use one brand of mascara over another, the effects are limited – there isn’t much harm to be done from switching your brand of mascara. But when celebrities get involved in raising awareness of disease and charities, their name could hold more sway than they think.
Many celebrities at the moment are supporting the Help Harry Help Others campaign in conjunction with Cancer Research UK. Harry was an 11-year-old boy with an inoperable brain tumour who made and sold beaded bracelets to raise money for research into the disease. Unfortunately Harry passed away, but his campaign lives on. Famous Harrys including Harry Redknapp, Harry Styles and Ainsley Harriott, plus many other celebrities, have got themselves one of Harry’s bracelets and are proudly wearing it in support of his campaign.
There is nothing wrong with celebrities rallying round in support of charities – in many cases it can be extremely beneficial.
But what if a well-meaning celebrity gets behind a well-meaning campaign to fund unproven medical treatments? In November last year, comedian Peter Kay and music writer Luke Bainbridge started a campaign to raise £200,000 to send Luke’s niece to America and pay for treatment for a rare brain tumour. However, the clinic where the treatment was to take place was the Burzynski Clinic – a controversial cancer treatment facility in Texas.
The clinic’s antineoplaston therapy – an alternative cancer treatment Stanislaw Burzynski uses as part of a clinical trial – has been called in to question. The drugs are not licensed and there is no evidence of their clinical efficacy. Independent scientists have been unable to reproduce any of Burzynski’s results, and the American Cancer Society recommends people don’t pay for this treatment as the products could result in serious health consequences.
While the celebrities who got involved in Peter Kay’s benefit gigs thought they were doing something right – and they were, who wouldn’t want to help? – their actions could prove to be more costly than they could have imagined. The treatment has not received approval from the FDA, is unlikely to work and likely to be a waste of money.
But it doesn’t stop there. Well-meaning rock band the Foo Fighters came under fire for supporting Christine Maggiore and her Alive and Well AIDS Alternatives foundation. Maggiore was an HIV-positive AIDS denialist – she believed AIDS was not caused by HIV, but instead by malnutrition, stress and drug use among gay men. The foundation – and Maggiore via her book What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? – believed the HIV-positive pregnant women should avoid antiretroviral drugs and encouraged the use of alternative therapies.
The band ignored over 20 years of research into the disease and spread the message of HIV denialism through their concerts and benefit gigs. Fans were annoyed by the message their favourite band were sending – and rightly so. Is it appropriate for a rock band to be involved in promoting ideas that go against the generally accepted medical consensus? We wouldn’t expect a doctor to be writing and performing rock music, so why should a rock band have a voice on medical issue that they have little knowledge about. It is thought that one of the members of the band knew Maggiore – who passed on the disease to both of her children – and may have been influenced by her strong beliefs. But that still doesn’t qualify them to comment so publicly on something which goes against medical opinion.
The Foo Fighters probably lost a few fans – or at least their fans’ respect – for promoting Alive and Well’s message, but Maggiore paid the ultimate price. Her three year old daughter, Eliza Jane, died of pneumocystic pneumonia – a common complication in those with HIV/AIDS, although she blamed her death on an allergic reaction to amoxicillin which was prescribed for an ear infection.
This tragedy could have been avoided if Maggiore took antiretroviral drugs, didn’t breast feed her children and got them tested for the disease. Instead, she believed they didn’t have the disease, and wouldn’t allow them to take the drugs either. Five years after Eliza Jane’s death, Maggiore died – the causes listed by the coroner were all HIV-related.
Celebrity endorsement can be dangerous, particularly if they are raising awareness of a treatment of lifestyle that can do more harm than good. But it is up to us as individuals to choose whether we take heed of their so-called advice, or do our own research before making our minds up. I’d always choose the latter.