Friday, March 15, 2013

The Commodification of Celebrity Health

On January 17, 2012, celebrity chef Paula Deen went on the Today Show to clear up rumors about her health and publically announce that she had been diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2009. In the days that followed, Deen did not receive the support and encouragement she had hoped from colleagues and fans. Instead, she was met with tremendous backlash from the American public who questioned her motives for hiding her illness for so long. Many accused the “Butter Queen” of being a hypocrite for continuing to glamorize an unhealthy eating lifestyle (deep fried-cheesecake anyone?) while knowing full well its detrimental health effects. Adding insult to injury, Deen also announced her multi-million dollar contract to become the spokesperson for Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals’ diabetes drug, Victoza, leading people to wonder if she was using her celebrity status to somehow exploit her illness. While this story has the elements of the usual celebrity scandal (rumor, deceit, money, etc.), what sets it apart is the subject matter. After all, we aren’t talking about an extramarital affair or insider trading – we are talking about the personal process of managing an illness. So why are countless fans, fellow chefs, diabetics, doctors and the media so invested in Paula Deen’s health?

One reason is that Deen’s celebrity status may have a substantial impact on the social image of diabetes as an illness and the reification of prescription drugs as an effective treatment. Medicalization scholars argue that actors, athletes and other public figures are expected to reflect cultural ideals of body image and health. Their wealth and status afford them access to the best medical expertise and care and as a result, consumers place particular value on their healthcare decisions. In a consumer-driven economy, it is not surprising that pharmaceutical companies invest in the reputation of these celebrities to promote their products to potential consumers. Following the theme of this issue, I want to reflect on this strategy which I am calling the "commodification of celebrity health." That is, how the (perceived) health, medical expertise, and treatment decisions of a celebrity can become a commodity which embodies larger social relationships between the public, healthcare providers, and the pharmaceutical industry.

The commodification of celebrity health has both positive and negative implications. One the one hand, actors such as Christopher Reeves and Michael J. Fox have been able to leverage their fame in order to raise public awareness and funds for medical research on their conditions. By openly discussing their private medical issues with the public, celebrities have also been able to address the misconceptions and stigmas attached to certain illnesses. One of the most famous examples of this is Bob Dole’s endorsement of Viagra, a drug manufactured by Pfizer to treat the symptoms of erectile dysfunction. In the 1998 television commercial, Dole admitted that he suffered from the condition and encouraged viewers to work up the “courage” to ask their doctors about the drug. Mamo and Fishman (2001) argue that as a political figure, Dole represented a hegemonic ideal of masculinity, and as a result was able to not only de-stigmatize erectile dysfunction, but legitimize it as a biomedical condition which should be treated with a prescription drug.

Once a celebrity has signed on to endorse a product, their reputation and credibility is, to a degree, tied to that product. This is especially true in the case of pharmaceutical endorsements because of the implications drug failures can be costly. For example, in 2004, Merck Pharmaceuticals withdrew their arthritis drug, Vioxx from the worldwide market after receiving information from the FDA that it significantly increased the risk of heart attack and stroke among users. While Merck quickly initiated a damage control campaign for their company, celebrity athletes Bruce Jenner and Dorothy Hamill found themselves under public scrutiny for promoting the unsafe medication. Jenner explained to ESPN that “Dorothy (Hamill) is not a scientist and I’m not a scientist… we had no idea what was happening behind the scenes. They never told us.” Instances such as this calls to question the ethics of allowing celebrities to offer health advice to viewers, especially when they do not know or understand the risks associated with the products they endorse.

The misrepresentation of medical expertise in pharmaceutical advertisements was also a concern in 2008 when a congressional committee was created to investigate the questionable tactics used by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in the campaign for their cholesterol drug, Lipator. Celebrity scientist and creator of the Jarvik artificial heart, Dr. Robert Jarvik appeared in a series of Lipator advertisements where he offered medical knowledge and advice on the heart health. However, Jarvik is not a cardiologist nor does he have a license to practice medicine. Futhermore, it was discovered that a stunt double was used in commercials featuring the scientist performing impressive athletic activities. These tactics demonstrate how misleading pharmaceutical advertisements are in presenting the expertise and health of their celebrity affiliates in order to fill prescriptions.

The presentation of medical expertise is particularly relevant in Paula Deen’s case. In her Today Show interview, she admitted that she was not familiar with the illness and didn’t want to tell her fans without being able to offer some sort of program to that could help others who suffered from diabetes. However, the website for her new campaign Diabetes in a New Light is a far cry from the expert medical resource she claimed it would be. The homepage features a contest for members (yes, you have to pay) where you can win a chance to meet Deen in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia. You will also get full access to her new recipe book “Delicious Living Y’all”; cooking tips from her family members; and ideas on how to work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that works for you. Most importantly, it features a link to her primary sponsor, Norvo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals. Although the site does include some rudimentary suggestions on eating healthy and being active, it prominently features Victoza as a necessary part of a successful diabetes management plan.

When it comes down to it, critics of Paula Deen feel as though she is setting a poor and even dangerous example to other diabetics of how they should be managing their illness. Donna Shaft, a marketing consultant who also suffers from Type II diabetes explains to Fox News that “We of course don't know the terms of her contract with the drug company, but it seems either stupid or hypocritical of them to be endorsing the eating lifestyle she advocates. For her to publicly facilitate the illusion that a T2 [medication] can consume the quantities of fats and carbs and sugars she showcases, even occasionally, is nothing short of a dangerous abuse of the trust many in her audience place in her as an influential public figure.”

While the degree to which Deen actually influences other diabetics is yet to be determined, her celebrity status has made her an asset to Novo Nordisk and in turn helped her brand her Diabetes in a particular way. Specifically, that she has pulled together all of her star power to bring you a fool-proof program to live a “diabetes friendly” lifestyle – all you need to do is purchase her recipes and ask your doctor for Victoza.

As easy as it is to vilify Deen as an irresponsible role model for diabetes management, the value and commodification of her health decisions is the result of a larger shift towards this consumer-driven economy of health. And although she is not the first celebrity to come under scrutiny for her affiliation with the pharmaceutical industry, it is safe to say she won’t be the last.

Tazin Karim


Mamo, Laura and Jennifer Fishman. 2007. Potency in All the Right Places: Viagra as a Technology of the Gendered Body. Body & Society, December, Issue 7: 13-35.

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