August 18, 2009

The Power of Celebrity


Using fame to bring attention

The power of celebrity.

Celebrity is potent. We’ve seen the power of celebrity recently with the death of a certain music icon — how it takes over the news and, in his case, a city budget.

The power comes from celebrities’ ability to generate awareness — whether it’s fashion, diet or a cause, if they are affiliated with it, attention will be paid. Sometimes the attention comes about unintentionally, as with the awareness now surrounding prescription drug overdose.

This is the second public figure in two years to die from suspected prescription drug abuse. Too many pills from too many different people. Many contraindications. Is the problem that celebrities have too much access to whatever they want? Or is the problem that we have a healthcare system that enables someone to fill multiple prescriptions from different physicians? Will the deaths of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson prompt real action on this issue or will it simply raise awareness?

Consider what can happen when a celebrity purposely supports a cause to generate awareness. After the country watched Katie Couric get a colonoscopy on The Today Show, a national study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported a monthly increase in colonoscopies from 15 to 18.1, with a hike in the percentages of women perceiving themselves at risk and being screened. Michael J. Fox not only educated the public about early Parkinson’s diagnoses, but then went on to raise close to 150 million dollars strictly for Parkinson’s research. The power of celebrity can launch foundations, research initiatives and important public discussion.

But what happens when the celebrity raises the awareness of an important cause with the wrong facts?

On the 1997 April cover of Ebony Magazine, Cookie Johnson claimed “God Cured Magic!” Those in the AIDS community knew what this meant — his treatment had been so successful that his viral load was deemed undetectable. Did the Ebony readers know this? Did they know enough about the disease to even comprehend this? Cookie’s celebrity could have helped spread valuable information — but instead, it fueled rumors and myths that the AIDS virus could be cured by prayer. The readers never learned that Magic had to take 900 pills a month and those pills came with their own brand of side effects that required their own clinical management. The readers never learned that an undetectable viral load goes right back up to highly detectable if all of these medications are not taken precisely according to protocol. All the readers learned was that God had cured Magic Johnson — imagine how disappointed they felt to later learn it was not true, or even possible.

The power of celebrity can be a phenomenal force. It can generate awareness, inspire action and create change. And apparently this is the case in life or death.