Young Americans love their celebrities like they love apple pie, Uber and iPods. I say this fondly, as I’m mildly obsessed with a fairly extensive list of celebrities (Ice T is in a screamo band, and it’s so good, ya’ll).

We have less of a relationship with and knowledge of our health and health care. This is partly because of a myriad of complex philosophical, economic and socio-political factors that I will spare you the details of, and partly because of a PR problem. Every 20-something is vaguely aware of the impact of “Obamacare” because it grants them the ability to stay on their parents’ (probably much better) insurance plan for just a tiny bit longer. (If you’re one of the 20-somethings who wasn’t aware, go to HealthCare.gov and study up.) But if you’re unaware, I don’t blame you. The PR for Obamacare wasn’t exactly positive or straightforward. The name of the legislation isn’t even “Obamacare” — it’s the Affordable Care Act.

You’ve probably heard about Kanye’s promise to Matt Neal, a 26-year-old Ann Arbor resident and Yeezy fan, to give him a new pair of Yeezy shoes if Neal successfully trades his own pair for a kidney. And while this has raised Neal’s profile in his search for a kidney donor, it’s also a campaign in misinformation.

Kanye would have done himself and all of us a favor if he’d also sold a pair of the $16 million sneakers and then donated the money to the National Kidney Foundation. He would have discovered that one in 10 Americans suffer from some level of kidney failure, and that the average wait time on a kidney transplant list is three to five years. Yeezus could have started a campaign about organ and human trafficking. If he had gotten involved in any of these things he would have learned that it’s illegal in all countries for Mr. Neal to trade money, goods or services for organs. The black market is extremely dangerous and exploits a lot of individuals desperate for money. Kidneys can go for up to $300,000 on the black market, while the donor is paid just $650.

Wake up, Mr. West, Mr. West!

Do you know about Angelina Jolie’s surgery to remove her breasts and prevent breast cancer (known as a double mastectomy)? The odds are good that you do. Did you also know that mastectomies aren’t generally recommended for women? Only those with a specific gene that make it more likely to develop breast cancer are recommended for the surgery.  

This factoid is much less sexy or inspirational (sexpirational?) than the headline, “Most beautiful woman in the world shockingly sacrifices breasts to prevent death.” While Ms. Jolie is incredibly inspirational in her work as a U.N. Ambassador, her medical procedure should have come with a disclaimer to her loyal fans — borrow her style, her clothes, her look, but not her invasive surgical procedure.

These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to celebrities influencing health in a three-ring circus that includes everything from Jennifer Aniston endorsing better bottled water to an endless parade of B-list celebrities’ diet and weight-loss products and services.

Government, health care and other public health-care organizations are supposed to be the public counterweight to faulty celebrity health claims and misunderstandings, but they struggle to harness the necessary glamour and star power needed to get everyone to pay attention to health insurance or mammogram factoids. However, a notable exception is the NOMORE campaign, a celebrity-filled effort to end sexual assault and domestic violence.

This may, of course, be a cost issue. In an attempt to rehabilitate the image of Obamacare, the federal government will spend at least $684 million on promoting it annually. In 2010, $50 billion dollars was spent hiring celebrities to endorse products. Magazine advertisers in the United States spends $15.1 billion each year.

So what’s the takeaway?

As educated young adults who are independent consumers of the health, health care and diet industries, as well as students at a prestigious medical research University here in the United States, we need to look deeper into what health care messages the media and celebrities are directing at us. While we may feel these things are superficial or trivial, they’re undoubtedly very influential.

We should also remember that we have some power to influence what celebrities support and speak about: tweet, donate and e-mail until your favorite celebrity knows about your cause. The same goes for the government, as well: get out and vote, e-mail your congressperson, campaign for your favorite presidential nominee. And finally: as professionals, we should never underestimate the value of a high-profile spokesperson.

Health-care and public-health sectors would be very well served to step up their game by attempting to get more celebrities, communications and P.R. professionals involved in meaningful health campaigns, demonstrating an understanding that investing in a great campaign is worth as much as a pair of Yeezy exclusive sneakers.

Peggy Korpela can be reached at kpeggy@umich.edu.

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