Celebrity culture, like placebo, can have positive or negative effects!

Celebrity culture is nothing new, but since the digital revolution and the advent of social media, its influence on individuals and society as a whole has been expanding rapidly and it shows no sign of slowing any time soon. In the healthcare sector, it is something that can no longer be ignored, but a bit like the placebo effect, celebrity culture can positive or negative effects.1,2


Celebrity culture is considered an increasingly important part of consumer culture. It has come to prominence through the rapid reproduction and dissemination of imagery and information enabled with modern media channels, and feeds an almost insatiable appetite of consumers for someone to identify with and/or adore.3,4


This is emotional territory, but celebrity culture can also play a very practical role. We live in an age of information overload, and much of the information we are exposed to is disparate, sometimes contradictory and frequently changing. It is impossible for us to process it all, and thus we naturally seek short-cuts. It’s not surprising, therefore, that consumers may readily accept information or advice from celebrities that they feel a connection with and ultimately trust – increasingly, this includes advice on health-related topics.3


However, the information or advice may or may not be helpful. For example, an announcement from a male celebrity about being HIV-positive may heighten awareness and concern about the risks of HIV among adult males. Conversely, celebrity proclamations about the risks of vaccination, irrespective of the scientific evidence, may convince mothers not to have their children vaccinated.1


Placebo can also have positive or negative effects, and this too appears to be a question of faith. A commonly quoted theory on the placebo effect proposes that a person’s beliefs and expectations are critical to triggering physiological processes that result in measurable outcomes, both subjective and objective – the stronger the belief or expectation, the stronger the effect.2 With celebrity culture, a consumer’s adulation can breed unquestioning trust in their idols. When a celebrity gives an opinion or advice, or shares an experience, a fan or follower is automatically inclined to listen and agree or take heed – after all, to do otherwise could well result in troubling cognitive dissonance.3


There is therefore a glaring need for the scientific community to take the lead and direct the conversation on health-related topics.5 Furthermore, there appears to be a public appetite for easily digestible science news6 and the power of celebrity offers a significant opportunity to effectively disseminate important health messages to a wide audience1 – what is important is that the information and/or advice given is beneficial, does not misinform, and does not raise unrealistic or inappropriate expectations.


Health-related information or advice imparted by celebrities needs to be based on hard evidence, not opinion, and if not generalizable it needs to be clear to what group or groups of individuals it is or is not applicable to.3 In this way, celebrity culture could be put to good use – for celebrities themselves, their potential gain is a strengthening bond with consumers by providing, and being seen to provide, valuable advice backed by science.


Like the placebo effect, which can be an ally to clinicians if embraced and integrated into medical practice,2 so too the power of celebrity “authority” can be harnessed, rather than dismissed, and used by the medical community to engage the public in a clear and concise way about medical science and healthy living to everyone’s benefit.1 Clinicians often have very helpful one-to-one discussions with patients when they see them – now, the topics of these discussions can be shared in the public domain via social media, potentially by enlisting the help of celebrities, so that essential information has the broadest possible reach.


Dominique du Crest



The author would like to thank Dr Alessandra Haddad, Chief of Skin Care and Laser Section and Affiliate Professor at the Federal University of Sao Paulo for her scientific and editorial input during the development of this article, and Nicholas Terry for his assistance in the development and writing of this article.



  1. Caulfield T, Fahy D. Don’t dismiss the star power. Slate.com. July 11, 2016. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/07/the_scientific_community_can_t_ignore_celebrity_culture.html Accessed March 26, 2017.
  2. Harvard Health Letter. Putting the placebo effect to work. April 2012. Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/putting-the-placebo-effect-to-work Accessed March 26, 2017.
  3. Schroeder MO. Is it ever Ok to take health advice from a celebrity? Health Living. September 10, 2016. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/celebrities-vs-science-where-do-you-get-your-health-advice_us_579a211de4b0d3568f86480d Accessed March 26, 2017.
  4. Encyclopedia.com. Celebrity culture. Dictionary of American History. COPYRIGHT 2003. The Gale Group Inc. Available at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/celebrity-culture Accessed March 26, 2017.
  5. Farr C. Why we need scientists on social media, now more than ever. Fastcompany.com. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3067752/why-we-need-scientists-on-social-media-now-more-than-ever Accessed March 26, 2017.
  6. Branford OA, et al. #PlasticSurgery. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2016;138(6):1354-65. Available at: http://journals.lww.com/plasreconsurg/Abstract/2016/12000/_PlasticSurgery.37.aspx