Volume 14, Number 5
Whether we like it or not, endorsement of a health-related product or process by a celebrity affects consumer behavior, for good or ill. Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy in 2000 was followed by a subsequent increase in colonoscopies. Jenny McCarthy’s unscientific position that vaccinations are linked to autism is thought to have contributed to the anti-vaccine movement.
Why should the opinions and/or endorsements of celebrities affect behavior when physician recommendations or scientific data may not? This question has received much attention from Steven J Hoffman, JD, PhD, the director of the Canadian Institute of Population and Public Health and a Professor at York University. Hoffman and colleagues have reviewed relevant scientific articles from a number of disciplines in their quest to answer this question, and are embarking on an ambitious systematic review to enhance their understanding. Following are just a few of the mechanisms thought to contribute to the phenomenon of celebrity influence:
Classical Conditioning (Psychology) – To the extent that a celebrity elicits a positive emotional response, repeated pairing of the celebrity with an otherwise “neutral” product results in a “conditioned” positive response to the product.
Meaning Transfer (Marketing) – A celebrity may have attributes that a consumer desires or wants to emulate. The association of a celebrity with a product leads to the impression that the product contributes to the desired attributes. For example, the perceived (and desired) impression of the healthiness of a professional athlete is transferred to the product(s) endorsed by that athlete.
Source Credibility (Marketing) – Whether justified or not, celebrities are often perceived to be trustworthy, and therefore are “experts” about products/ideas they promote. Especially if a celebrity endorser has characteristics that match relevant attributes of a product, the celebrity is perceived to be credible.
Halo Effect (Marketing) –The perception of celebrities being successful can lead to making other attributions about the celebrity, such as the celebrity being a source of credible information about endorsed products (i.e., that the celebrity is also “successful” in selecting quality products to endorse).
Social Networks (Sociology) – The perceived newsworthiness of celebrity-related information results in extensive sharing via social networks. Health-related celebrity endorsements reach many people via this type of social contagion.
Signaling (Economics) – Consumers can be overwhelmed by the amount of health-related information, much of which can be contradictory. The celebrity endorsement of a product can function as an attention-getting signal that information about an endorsed product must be credible.
Another potential factor not directly addressed by Hoffman is that anecdotes (commonly included with celebrity endorsements) and familiar faces typically evoke some emotion that wouldn’t be experienced with statistical/scientific data reported by an unfamiliar expert. Information associated with emotion is more likely to be retained in memory, and also more likely to impact behavior.
There are many reasons why celebrity endorsements are frequently impactful. The challenge for health consumers is to utilize the ability to reason logically and carefully consider the source of the health-related information. A more critical appraisal of the “expertise” of the celebrity can be considered and contrasted with the reliability of other sources of health recommendations.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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