Celebrities as Health Educators: Media Advocacy Guidelines

By Baker, Judith A.; Lepley, Cyndi J. et al. | Journal of School Health, November 1992 | Go to article overview

Celebrities as Health Educators: Media Advocacy Guidelines


Baker, Judith A., Lepley, Cyndi J., Krishnan, Satya, Victory, Kathryn S., Journal of School Health


Celebrities often use their popularity to champion causes[1] and endorse products.[2-4] They play multiple roles as spokespersons for health issues including advocate, educator, social change agent, and fundraiser. The December 2, 1991, issue of People magazine focused on 12 celebrities who developed off-camera roles providing services for people or causes.[1] Actor Steve Guttenberg distributes food to the homeless. Actress Kate Capshaw works for immunization of children. Television star Jill Eikenberry narrated a documentary about breast cancer and testified before a Senate subcommittee on breast cancer. School administrators often use celebrities in anti-drug programs.[5] Celebrities also serve as role models, particularly for children.[6]

Mass media are primary sources of health information for many Americans.[7] In the absence of other means for making health decisions, people often rely on intuitive judgments of probabilities known as heuristic strategies.[8] One common strategy involves the availability heuristic in which individuals judge the likelihood of developing a health problem or disease based on how readily they can imagine or recall the condition. For example, individuals often overestimate the probability of developing a serious disease because the disease has become vivid or emotionally intense. Testimonials by prominent public figures or celebrities who disclose their personal health concerns potentially create emotionally intense and vivid images.

Consequently, celebrities represent a potentially salient source of health information for the general public with the power to stimulate and frame public discussions about health problems. Yet, a study of endorsements in national magazine advertising from 1980 to 1986 revealed that while endorsements by celebrities are widely used, less product information was provided in endorsement advertising than in other types of advertising.[6] The role of celebrities as media advocates for health education warrants analysis.

The Magic Johnson Case

The situation created by Magic Johnson's desire to become a spokesperson for AIDS illustrates the need to understand the dynamics of celebrities as health educators. While many consider Johnson an ideal spokesperson for AIDS, others note that his public disclosure raised important questions.[9,10]

In his first public disclosure about the illness, Johnson sent intended as well as unintended messages. Initially, Johnson revealed that, having tested positive for HIV, he would retire from basketball to devote his attention to battling AIDS as a spokesperson.[11] He emphasized heterosexual transmission of the HIV in his case and prevention of AIDS with safe sex. In doing so, Johnson simultaneously admitted and demonstrated a naivete about AIDS, its implications, and his own vulnerability.[11] AIDS educators and public school health teachers questioned the appropriateness and effectiveness of Johnson's safe sex message.[12] Since his disclosure, Johnson has begun promoting abstinence.

Johnson has broad appeal, to young and old, black and white, men and women, due to rare athletic talent and a charismatic personality.[13] As an African-American sports idol, Johnson may be a highly credible spokesperson with inner city youth.[9] Johnson lends a new image to AIDS, a disease previously associated with politically sensitive issues such as homosexuality, drug use, poverty, and limited access to health care.[9] Noting the media's tactful treatment of Johnson's admitted heterosexual promiscuity, tennis star Martina Navrati-lova and others suggest a double standard:

The Magic Johnson story tells us that AIDS is an equal opportunity disease crossing all lines of sex, sexual orientation, race, and class. However, the role model is flawed, because in the portrayal of Johnson as a virile, heterosexual sports star, women, lesbians and gay men are again cast as less valuable, and perhaps even disposable parts of the human family. …

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