Gwyneth Paltrow's wellness obsession has become one of the more reliable punchlines in Hollywood, but she may very well have the last laugh. The actress-turned-wellness-guru is now known as much for her acting as for her scientifically dubious lifestyle brand, Goop. In 2016, the company raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, all despite unrelenting mockery in the press. The marketing for some products is so ridiculous I sometimes wonder if Goop is really just a form of clever satire aimed at the dangers of pseudoscience. (If this is true, mission accomplished.)
But assuming this isn’t performance art, the increasing popularity of companies like Goop is a cause for legitimate concern. Despite the best efforts of journalists and doctors, the debunkers are not winning the wellness war. Indeed, there is evidence that the trust people place in traditional sources of science is eroding.
And it’s not just science — global trust in institutions everywhere is plummeting. While these are socially complex phenomena, I believe there are several powerful — and, ultimately, tremendously harmful — rhetorical devices deployed by the multibillion-dollar wellness industrial complex that have facilitated its cultural ascendency. By examining these devices, perhaps we can make people think twice before they try being voluntarily stung by bees as a cure for inflammation.
What’s in a name?
Before we can talk about the scientific failings of this movement, however, we first need to talk about its masterful branding.
Rather than positioning themselves as anti-science, Paltrow and her peers frame themselves as proponents of “wellness,” a vague if benign-sounding term that almost always involves the embrace of concepts like “holistic” (whatever that is) and “natural” (again, whatever that is). In scientific circles, these concepts are generally viewed as near meaningless marketing slogans. But in the world of wellness, they are typically paired with a largely uncritical acceptance of alternative therapies, often with a dash of spirituality and a large serving of fear mongering.
In this context, Goop recommendations like vagina steaming, luxury crystal therapy and raw goat milk cleanses are presented as cutting-edge innovations while science-y cynics are contrarians on the wrong side of history.
These false dichotomies are profoundly misleading, but the fact that they are so effective tells us a lot about what is driving the popularity of alternative approaches to health — and perhaps how we can return to a more science-informed approach.
Big Pharma is bad, but alternative medicine is good
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The wellness industry didn’t appear out of thin air, of course: Goop itself was founded as a simple newsletter back in 2008. But the brand’s current popularity may be related to a lack of trust in the medical establishment. The pharmaceutical industry, or Big Pharma, has taken a particularly severe beating in the court of public opinion. Studies have consistently shown that the involvement of industry can erode public trust, and that is clearly happening in wellness space — even if the articulation of the concern often gets twisted into a maddening anti-science slogan.
Enter wellness gurus, who claim that opponents to their alternative remedies are either corporate shills or naïve simpletons unaware of the harm Big Pharma is causing.
Of course, these kinds of assertions are completely nonsensical. Most people who criticize the marketing of bunk health products are advocating for science and critical thinking, not the blind use of more drugs. Yes, there are obviously many problems with conventional medicine, including patient safety issues and the overuse of prescription pharmaceuticals and diagnostic tools. And the involvement of large industries can have a less-than-ideal impact on research and knowledge translation.