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Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow made the 2010s the decade of health and wellness misinformation

Celebrity wellness hype contributes to our “culture of untruth” by both inviting an erosion of critical thinking and promoting what is popular rather than what is true.
Image: Wellness has wooed and thrived over the past ten years. With faces like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and even Tom Brady, they've helped turn wellness into a huge business often at odds with conventional healthcare.
Celebrity wellness gurus are not truly health experts — but their messaging still has power.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

In 2010, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand, Goop, was just starting to get its goop-y mojo rolling. Tom Brady’s lifestyle company, TB12, wasn’t around, so we had no way of learning about bogus fitness concepts like muscle pliability. And Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company, a fearmongering and pseudoscience-based business that is currently worth over a billion dollars, was still one year away from inception.

But what a difference 10 years has made. Now all of these companies are thriving and many other celebrities, including Victoria Beckham and Kate Hudson, have started similar wellness brands.

But it is hard to deny that things are qualitatively different now. This has been the decade of misinformation. And, in the context of health, celebrities have led the charge.

Yes, pseudoscientific health claims have been with us for a long time. And celebrities have often embraced them. (Apparently, Greta Garbo never met a fad diet she didn’t like or, at least, try.) But it is hard to deny that things are qualitatively different now. This has been the decade of misinformation. And, in the context of health, celebrities have led the charge.

We’ve had the vagina steam (thanks, Gwyneth), jade vagina eggs (ditto), the vampire facial (Kim Kardashian West), bird poop facials (David and Victoria Beckham), facials made with discarded foreskin stem cells (Sandra Bullock), drinking your own urine (Madonna), placenta smoothies (more Kardashians) and too many crazy diets, cleanses and detoxes to mention. I could go on and on and on.

It seems entirely appropriate that we are closing this ridiculous decade with the too-absurd-to-be-true (but it is true) news that Josh Brolin burned his anus trying the latest wellness trend, “perineum sunning.”

Some may dismiss the critique of celebrities and the associated health fads as a waste of time. Few people take this stuff seriously, it is argued. Bigger fish to fry. Fish in a barrel.

This perspective is mistaken.

Celebrity health noise has had (and continues to have) a large and measurable impact. There is a growing body of literature that has demonstrated celebrity marketing, musing and news coverage can have an influence on a range of health related behaviors, including dieting, cancer screening, smoking and suicide. Pop culture coverage of a health topic, like Angelina Jolie’s decision to get genetic testing, can affect, for better or worse, the utilization rates of health services. And there seems little doubt that many current evidence-free and potentially harmful health trends — such a IV vitamin therapy, nonceliac gluten-free diets, cryotherapy and detoxification diets and procedures — would not be nearly as popular but for the associated celebrity endorsements.

In addition, all this celebrity noise and wellness-related pontificating adds to an already noisy health information environment. Studies have consistently found that the public is increasingly confused about what a healthy lifestyle entails — this, despite the fact that for most people the essential ingredients are straightforward and well established (don’t smoke, exercise, eat real food, sleep, maintain a healthy weight, and drink alcohol in moderation or not at all).

When it comes to public discourse, few entities have the volume and reach of celebrities. As I write this, Katy Perry has 108 million Twitter followers; the World Health Organization has 5 million. In 2010, Instagram was just getting started. Ten years later, Instagram has emerged as a significant source of health misinformation and much of the messaging on the platform is dominated by celebrities (currently 17 of the top 20 Instagram accounts are run by either a musician, an actor or a sports star). When Katy Perry tweets about her love of supplements or Tom Brady posts science-free diet advice, it is seen by tens of millions.

Just being around this social media-fueled celebrity health noise can have an impact on our health behaviors and beliefs. The more we hear about something, the more believable it becomes. This is how and why fake news works. Indeed, research led by Canadian psychologist Gordon Pennycook has found that even a single exposure to misinformation can affect “perceptions of accuracy.”

And when celebrities do provide health advice — be it about the effectiveness of an extreme diet, a ridiculous “waist-training” device, anti-vaccine baloney, or the need to screen for prostate cancer — it is often packaged in the form of a compelling story. Narratives, especially highly memorable ones, can be extremely influential. A persuasive testimonial can displace a mountain of scientific data. Indeed, a 2016 study found that anecdotal stories impede our “ability to reason scientifically.”

A persuasive testimonial can displace a mountain of scientific data. Indeed, a 2016 study found that anecdotal stories impede our “ability to reason scientifically.”

I believe this is one of the reasons why celebrities hold so much sway. Celebrity wellness gurus are not truly health experts. But their messaging still has power because it plays to our cognitive biases, including the mere-exposure effect and our hardwired tendency to be influenced by stories.

What is a celebrity endorsement, after all, but a glossy, high profile and impressive testimonial from someone who is often a genetic outlier in areas such as appearance and athletic ability? When Tom Brady recommends that we avoid the consumption of dairy, it may feel like a good idea because it seems to have worked for him. Do not be fooled. You aren’t Tom Brady (unless you are, in which case, enough with the diet nonsense).

Of course, this decade of celebrity health hogwash should also be considered in the broader context. This is the era of misinformation, a time when trust in public institutions is declining and people feel uncertain about what to believe about, well, everything. Celebrity wellness hype contributes to this “culture of untruth” by both inviting a further erosion of critical thinking and promoting what is popular and aspirational rather than what is true.

In the coming decade let's do our best to ignore the celebrity noise (a man can dream!). We need everyone who cares about accurate representations of science and health issues — including researchers, public health advocates, health care institutions, universities and, hopefully, you — to use creative communication strategies, engaging story telling and social media-friendly imagery to get across the good science. Let’s fight the celebrity-fueled misinformation tire fire with a fact-filled fire of our own.

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