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Why Do So Many People Fall For Celebrity Advice on Health?

The human mind is built for simplicity. Add the simplicity of a message with an attractive messenger and you have human programming 101. The amount of self-appointed insta-health gurus touting medications, toxic supplements and fad diets is at an all-time high and people fall for it every time. But why?

This is what psychologists call the illusion of truth effect, a type of cognitive fluency which arises at least partly because familiarity breeds liking. As we are exposed to a message again and again from attractive messengers or those of status, it becomes more familiar. Because of the way our minds work, what is familiar is also true. Familiar things require less effort to process and that feeling of ease unconsciously signals truth.

Because science is full of uncertainty, its strength - an innate desire to doubt, to challenge and to confront beliefs - is often its greatest weakness when it comes to engaging the public.

As every politician knows, there's not much difference between actual truth and the illusion of truth. Since illusions are often easier to produce, why bother with the truth?

The exact opposite is also true. If something is hard to think about then people tend to believe it less. Naturally this is very bad news for people trying to persuade others of complicated ideas in what is a very complicated world.

A combination of likeability, photogenic appeal, a clear simple message and certainty in your beliefs is a powerful combination. In the wrong hands it has the potential to do harm.

Pharmaceutical companies are constantly looking for ways to get a leg up on the competition, and using celebrities is a popular tactic.

Celebrities Promote Anything They're Paid To Promote Regardless of Merit

"Brand-name pharmaceutical companies use celebrity endorsements because they hope such endorsements will cause patients to blindly pressure their doctor to prescribe the companies' products, regardless of the merits of using those drugs," Dr. Michael Carome, the director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, told Drugwatch.

Advertisers developed increasingly sophisticated advertising strategies during the 20th century, but the tactics used by drug companies lagged behind other industries for decades.

From Dorothy Hamill promoting killer drug Vioxx, to Mary Lou Retton touting dangerous Biomet hip replacements. Then there were countless endorsements by famous athletes such as Chris Bosh, Arnold Palmer and Brian Vickers to promote Bayer's Xarelto drug which inevitably was found to cause fatal side effects. It's unclear whether Palmer, Vickers or Bosh know they're advocating for a drug that faces thousands of lawsuits from people who claim they or a loved one suffered uncontrollable bleeding after taking it.

In the most publicized violation of FDA rules this year, Kim Kardashian West promoted an anti-nausea drug called Diclegis on her Instagram and Facebook accounts. In 60 words, the pregnant Kardashian described how the drug helped her with morning sickness with no risk to her baby. But most doctors would argue there isn't a drug in existence that doesn't pose some risk to a baby.

Wyeth, a maker of estrogen drugs, hired supermodel Lauren Hutton to tell women Estrogen loss at menopause could lead to a number of diseases and uncomfortable symptoms. She encouraged women to talk to their doctor about hormonal therapies after menopause in commercials and magazine ads. Even bio-identical hormone therapy had been found to be very problematic to a woman's health, let alone daily medications of synthetic females hormones. Countless studies have shown that hormone therapy increases the risk of breast and other cancers by more than 60 percent.

A decade later, Wyeth's parent company Pfizer paid almost $1 billion to settle lawsuits involving its hormone replacement drug Prempro. Hutton was one of the first celebrities to promote a treatment later found to be dangerous. She wasn't the last.

From routine surgeries to blockbuster medications, there is no end to celebrity pimping of drugs that kill more people than crack, cocaine, heroin, and all other street drugs combined.

The Art of Persuasion Starts With Familiarity

When people are debating an issue together in a meeting, you can see a parallel effect. When one person in a group repeats their opinion a few times, the other people think that person's opinion is more representative of the whole group

The same psychology is at work again: to the human mind, regardless of facts, there is little difference between appearances and truth. What appears to be true might as well actually be true, because we tend to process the illusion as though it were the truth.

It's a depressing enough finding about the human ability to process rational arguments but recent research has shown an even more worrying effect. We can effectively persuade ourselves through repetition, especially when it comes through culture symbols from memory. A study has shown that when an idea is retrieved from memory, this has just as powerful a persuasive effect on us as if it had been repeated twice.

Familiarity breeds liking and social media platforms are making huge strides in fooling unsuspecting audiences.

When a celebrity promotes a drug in a commercial, it's usually easy for consumers to tell that they're being paid to do it. When they promote drugs on talk shows, the transparency isn't as clear. But when celebrities promote products on social media, it can be almost impossible to tell if the endorsement is unsolicited or paid.

The FDA issued guidance on social media use for pharmaceutical companies, but the companies are still testing the waters on how to best use the new media.

And it's not just pharmaceuticals. Walk into any health show sponsored by hundreds of different natural health supplement companies and you'll be hard pressed not to find some steroid muscle-bound agent promoting the latest protein powder, bar or drink packed with enough artificial sweeteners and chemicals that will kill practically anything in nature.

Endorsement and sponsorship contracts can easily become the most lucrative part of an athlete's income. Would you ever pass up the opportunity to pocket $500,000 simply by endorsing a nutraceutical company for a year? This type of payout is real and some top-level athletes are taking even greater amounts home yearly in just endorsements alone. Even lower-level athletes are constantly hired to promote various nutraceutical companies regardless if they use the products or not.

Nutraceutical endorsements by athletes should never be trusted since they are simply a marketing strategy employed to enhance sales. Many professional athletes have very strict nutritional regimens structured by top-tier dietitians, and would most likely not risk jeopardizing their progress with the "latest and greatest" nutraceutical depicted in an advertisement.

How many so-called health and fitness gurus are now promoting the next breakthrough diet, survival food, miracle exercise appliance or energy drink? Hundreds...thousands? How many of them do you think actually work? Moreover, how many of them do you think will assist your body rather than harm it?

How many companies like Herbalife and Isagenix have lied to distributors and consumers through celebrity endorsements that their products were nutritionally sound?

How many nutraceutical companies out there do you think have the integrity to put therapeutically effective ingredients in their formulas instead of fillers? You could count them on one hand.


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