Using celebrities to market drugs and diseases: whatís the problem?


Celebrities often hide their conflicts of interest. Illustration: Margaret Shear.
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The common practice of drug companies hiring celebrities to attract attention to the latest drugs, and the diseases that go with them, is "fundamentally shifting the public debate about major health problems," argues the investigative reporter Ray Moynihan in the latest issue of PLoS Medicine.

Pfizer hired Bob Dole to promote awareness of erectile dysfunction just as Viagra was hitting the market, Wyeth hired supermodel Lauren Hutton to promote hormone replacement therapy and menopause, and GSK contracted football star Ricky Williams to sell social anxiety disorder, helping to make Paxil--briefly--the world's top-selling antidepressant drug. "Even the dead are raising awareness," says Moynihan, "with the estate of Errol Flynn now enlisted to help promote cardiovascular disease."

Moynihan cites an industry report in which a senior marketing executive says that "a partnership between a celebrity and a brand has an intangible sort of magic." The executive shares her tips on maximizing the magic: "use an A-list celebrity," find a "news-hook" to link the celebrity to your product, develop simple messages, and make sure the celebrity delivers them at every appearance.

The executive says that a talk-show appearance is better than a straight advertisement: "The great advantage over advertising is that the airtime is practically free, and there is no fair balance to worry about."

This lack of balance can be damaging to the public's health, argues Moynihan. There is no "formal requirement for stars or media outlets to spell out drug side effects." Another problem with celebrity marketing is that "the public is often not even informed whether a celebrity is receiving money from a drug company."

"When Frasier star Kelsey Grammer promoted irritable bowel syndrome on top-rating TV shows," says Moynihan, "viewers thought he was talking on behalf of an independent foundation; in fact his fee had flowed from GSK, which was preparing the market for the controversial drug Lotronex."

At the very least, argues Moynihan, "public disclosure of a product's risks and benefits, and the magnitude of the celebrity's fee" should be mandatory and routine.

Moynihan's essay is published under an open access license--anyone anywhere in the world is free to download, distribute, and reuse it freely as long as the article is properly cited. His book Selling Sickness, coauthored with Alan Cassels, will be out in 2005.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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