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Star Treatment



Published August 16, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Trend alert! Research laboratories, think tanks and Mary Hart have been working around the clock for decades searching for new ways to pamper celebrities, and their efforts appear to have yielded a breakthrough. Until recently, most media and entertainment insiders believed that the rich and famous in this country had attained a level of gratuitous privilege beyond any possible upgrade or enhancement. And yet the impossible seems to have happened. Film and television personalities are now reaping the benefits of a new and lucrative role: medical advisor.

Perhaps you've caught Oscar-winning actress Sally Field performing spokesperson duties on behalf of Roche Laboratories' osteoporosis medication Boniva. The 59-year-old former Flying Nun has found herself grounded since early 2005, when she was diagnosed with the condition that causes bones to become increasingly fragile. She plays dual roles for the pharmaceutical behemoth. The first is that of an empathetic, up-front TV pitchwoman. Her commercials are fairly standard stuff: Field talks about her battle with the ailment and the benefits of the drug.

The actress' second role is a tad shadier. The company has her travel around the country as part of a promotional campaign disguised as a sort of grassroots women's health movement. It's called "Rally with Sally for Bone Health." Journalist Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication has expressed concern that on some stops, organizers failed to make clear that the information distributed isn't unbiased medical literature but Roche PR. The company also neglected to disclose that it was paying Field for making the rounds on its behalf. Schwitzer has been a dogged critic of the campaign's tactics, and has published extensively on the subject.

But who cares when you've got Sally "You like me, you really like me!" Field traveling coast to coast and sharing personal stories such as this one: "My doctor said if I had not been diagnosed, I could have easily fractured my spine just by picking up a bag of heavy groceries!" Marketing scheme? This should be a one-woman show. I'd buy tickets in a heartbeat.

Lindsay Wagner's latest gig would have to be considered a snoozier affair in pretty much every respect. The former Bionic Woman is starring in a new series of TV ads. In commercials for Select Comfort mattresses, the actress shares painful memories of tossing and turning at night, "trying to find a comfortable position." She implies the ordeal impacted her wellbeing and cast a dark shadow over her life and career for years until - you guessed it - Select Comfort changed everything. Everything but, you know, her career.

If television ads are any indication, the debilitating illness that seems to strike wealthy, world-famous types most frequently is, ironically, depression. Designing Woman Delta Burke felt better about things after the Wyeth pharmaceutical company came into her life, though. Of course, that might have had something to do with the plus-size paychecks.

What's Greg Louganis been up to since his days as an Olympic diver? Would you believe traveling around to give testimonials for Glaxo SmithKline antidepressants? Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw joined Paxil's team. The star who has really made an industry out of mental illness, however, is Lorraine Bracco. The "Sopranos" star and Pfizer shill has not only appeared in a high-profile print and television campaign; she's also penned a best-selling book on beating the blues, based on her own experience. Shrinks are going to find themselves on the endangered species list if this keeps up. Americans aren't likely to continue paying for the privilege of talking to therapists when they can get advice from such glamorous experts for free on television.

Olympic skating champion Bonnie Blair can be seen on the tube championing proper treatment for uterine incontinence. Cal Ripken, Jr., is pitching for blood-pressure-lowering Prinivil these days. Former NFL star Joe Theismann is on the take-care-of-your-prostate circuit and, like Louganis, on the payroll of Glaxo SmithKline. Then there's beloved, crotchety old Wilford Brimley, who has pretty much disappeared from the big screen but become a permanent fixture on the small one, pushing home-delivered diabetes testing products from Liberty Medical Supply. Movies such as The Natural, The Thing and Cocoon made me such a fan, I have half a mind to sign up for the service even though I'm not diabetic. He's just so damn likable.

And that's the trouble with this whole new celebrity-as-medical-spokesperson development, according to some media watchers. Consumers take it for granted that well-meaning celebs endorsing medical treatments or tests is a good thing, but a serious downside is reported in a recent study by researchers at Dartmouth Medical School and the VA Outcomes Group - the first study to investigate how celebrity endorsements of this kind affect the public.

Rosie O'Donnell's efforts to encourage women to get mammograms, Rudolph Giuliani's endorsement of the PSA test and Katie Couric's promotion of colonoscopy are examples of an increasingly common phenomenon, the authors write. These celebrity endorsements often include highly emotional pleas, and are often delivered in the context of stories about a celebrity's own diagnosis or that of a loved one.

"These one-sided, highly persuasive messages run counter to U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations encouraging thoughtful, balanced discussions about both the benefits and harms of screening," writes co-author Dr. Robin Larson. "Emotional messages from highly engaging personalities may jeopardize a patient's ability to make an informed decision that best reflects how they personally value the tradeoffs involved."

The study's conclusion? "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. When it comes to communicating about complex decisions . . . the goal should not be to persuade but to inform. Thus, we see no obvious role for celebrity endorsement..."

This, it goes without saying, is the last thing the entertainment industry and mainstream media want to hear. So don't be surprised if you don't learn anything about the study from them. There's just too much money to be made here, and too many people more than happy to make it. If word were to get out, just think of the endorsement spectacles you'd never get the chance to enjoy: Howie Mandel on behalf of Bosley surgical hair restoration. Nap-happy night owl Lindsay Lohan for Maximum Strength NoDoz. Keith Richards for Paco Rabanne's line of men's moisturizing lotions and skin-care products. Maybe even publicity-shy author J.D. Salinger for the social-anxiety-disorder drug Effexor XR. It could happen.

Mel Gibson doesn't need the dough, but he may well be looking for a comeback vehicle in the future. Gibson is so full of it in every conceivable way, he'd be a natural as the new face of Ex-Lax, don't you think? If there's anyone in Hollywood who ought to stick to a script, it's this guy.