More than one-half of adults surveyed nationwide had seen or heard celebrity endorsements of cancer screening tests, and more than one-fourth of those who had seen or heard an endorsement reported that it made them more likely to undergo the promoted screening test, according to a new study in the May 4 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Celebrity endorsements of cancer screening are becoming increasingly common. High-profile people, such as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and journalist Katie Couric, endorse screening tests through stories about their own cancer diagnoses or when they become involved in promotional campaigns for specific tests. However, little is known about how these endorsements affect the public.
To examine the extent to which adults of screening age had seen, heard, or were influenced by celebrity endorsements of various types of cancer screening--screening mammography, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, and sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy--Robin J. Larson, M.D., of the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., and colleagues at Dartmouth Medical School conducted a telephone survey of American adults from December 2001 through July 2002.
Almost three-quarters (73%) of women age 40 and older (the age group potentially eligible for breast cancer screening) reported that they had seen or heard celebrities talk about mammograms, and, of these women, 25% said that it made them more likely to undergo screening mammography. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of men age 50 and older reported that they had seen or heard celebrities talk about PSA tests, and, of these men, 31% said it made them more likely to undergo PSA testing. About half (52%) of adults age 50 and older reported that they had seen or heard celebrities talk about sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, and, of these people, 37% said that it made them more likely to undergo one of these tests.
"Whether to undergo cancer screening is a complex decision--early detection of cancer will help some people, but it can create problems for others, such as unnecessary testing and treatment," the authors write. "There is little question that celebrities can have a powerful impact on the public and that their influence can be put to good use. However, when it comes to public health endorsements, we feel that celebrities should be judicious in using their powers of persuasion…. [W]hen it comes to communicating about complex decisions such as cancer screening, the goal should not be to persuade but to inform."