Celebrity endorsement of wellness trends truly jumped the shark with the news that the wholesome lifestyle guru Martha Stewart plans to link with leading cannabis company Canopy Growth to develop and market a range of CBD products. There was no medical professional in sight.
In the past month alone, we’ve been worrying whether the ketogenic diet can lead to unsavory body odor, digesting the idea burned toast can give us cancer and staying up all night wondering if moon milk can really help us sleep better. And in case you had already forgotten, watching too much television in middle age can harm your memory.
It’s a small wonder that consumers don’t know what or who to believe. Far too often the debate surrounding the issue of wellness is focused on social media opinions, not those of healthcare professionals.
Take the recent spat over keto. The high-fat, low-carb diet is the celebrity weight loss program of the moment. When television personality and personal trainer Jillian Michaels said keto was “bad news,” she was slapped down by breakfast television stars. Keto devotee Al Roker said Michaels was full of “bad ideas” and presenter Andy Cohen called her “a jackhole.”
The argument went national and multimedia without physicians or nutritionists weighing in. Instead, we have the bizarre spectacle of Kourtney Kardashian, Jenna Jameson and the Honey Boo Boo star Mama June endorsing keto, while Savannah Guthrie joined with Michaels in claiming it does not work. These are medical debates over important health matters with potentially life-affecting outcomes, and yet a nation is listening to Mama June.
Inevitably, Gwyneth Paltrow is a keto advocate. Her Goop wellness site has also featured adaptogens, the herb and root extract magic ingredient in moon milk, the bedtime milk, turmeric and honey drink that soared to prominence on Pinterest and Instagram last year as the hot new sleep aid. The professional healthcare industry struggles to have its voice heard amid so much celebrity and social media noise.
It needs to find a way, though, because the concept of wellness has spread belatedly beyond our metropolitan centers to the middle-American mainstream. It is part of the general evolution in thinking that has brought us the intertwined notions of a switch from volume to value-based healthcare, a greater reliance on primary, not secondary care, and a focus on prevention, not cure. From yoga and fitness to weight loss and nutrition, trends that emerged originally from alternative or niche cultures are part of the commercial mainstream. Wellness is now a $4.2 trillion global industry, one that has grown almost 13 percent over the past two years.
This should be a good thing. But science, as represented by healthcare practitioners, faces a new challenge, one familiar to professionals in other verticals: celebrity advocacy plus social media reach enables fame to compete unfairly with expertise.
Except in this case, it really matters. Science has too often been hijacked by forces that are as much distraction as positive advocacy. Celebrities like Paltrow and brands like major cosmetics companies looking to cash in are more interested in Pinterest and Instagram visuals. The trouble with this is that you can have great looking skin but sadly be a candidate for a cardiovascular incident.
The distraction of the celebrity circus is literally detrimental to our health. It only results in greater confusion for the people that really need to be introduced to wellness the most. Poor, non-metropolitan communities across America where rates of obesity and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are at all-time highs are at almost epidemic levels.
It needs saying though it’s not sexy: lasting, profound wellness solutions often depend on the relatively mundane like daily exercise, fundamental changes to portion sizes, balanced diets and recognition that mental health is often inextricably linked to physical health. And one of the hardest challenges of all is to get people who are the most in need to throw off the embarrassment about their weight, size or even mental health in order to seek help in the first place. They need to trust in medical practitioners, not reality stars.
Weight Watchers, the original celebrity-endorsed wellness brand, announced a profit warning recently, too, denting a hole in even shareholder Oprah Winfrey’s fortune as its share price slumped. Citing “holistic wellbeing,” Weight Watchers now goes by WW.
Healthcare marketing needs reclaiming by professionals from unqualified celebrities’ endorsements, but an even more urgent marketing challenge is to focus on removing the shame and stigma of seeking help for those most in need now. The government, providers and insurers need to be aligned in the concerted and joined-up promotion of professional science-based wellness solutions. Acknowledging the need for such a change is not just a matter of opinion. Not to act seems tantamount to negligence.