This post was written by Perrie Briskin.
Food Network star Paula Deen took to the airwaves this week to announce that she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes three years ago. What got more press, however, was her second revelation that she is now the new face of diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk.
Diabetes is a serious disease that affects an estimated 25.8 million Americans. Deen was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes and the kind that most people can manage through diet and exercise. Learn how to take steps to prevent type 2 diabetes at healthfinder.gov.
Deen is a well-known champion of butter, bacon, and burgers (donut burgers, that is), among other indulgent foods. Her cookbooks, magazine, and multiple Food Network shows have built her brand on “Southern” and “comfort” food. She’s never claimed to promote healthy eating and, more often, celebrates doing just the opposite. She posits herself as a stark contrast to a “health nut” type of cook.
Deen isn’t a stranger to criticism, either. Fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bordain takes regular shots at the Food Network star. And Deen was inaugurated into the Internet Meme Hall of Fame last year with the delightful Paula Deen Riding Things.
Deen’s decision to pair the announcement that she has type 2 diabetes with the announcement of her diabetes drug endorsement deal sends the wrong message. It implies that diabetes can be managed with a drug alone instead of with significant changes to diet and physical activity levels. Her decision to tell the world that she has diabetes apparently was prompted only by her drug endorsement deal. Even worse is that she has known about her diabetes for three years and in that time, took no visible steps to change her lifestyle.
Consumers have a responsibility to educate themselves and, if they disagree with Deen’s message, to not buy her products or watch her shows. But whether we like it or not, celebrities have more influence than that. It’s not enough to avoid their products. Through their actions, these celebrities contribute to larger cultural conversations. We want our favorite celebrities to welcome social responsibility, be role models, and use their star power for good.
Celebrity endorsements have been used to communicate plainly to the public about products, campaigns, and issues. Many people relate to celebrities and the characters they play on screen more than they do to academics, politicians, or businessmen. This places celebrities in a position to communicate certain messages more effectively than other people. In essence, this is what plain language communication is all about. People can make better decisions when they’re armed with information they can relate to and understand.
Deen could have communicated her diabetes announcement differently. Instead of endorsing a diabetes drug, why not release a healthy Southern or comfort food cookbook? Why not start a show that pairs exercise and cooking? Why not show fans that change is possible? The public image of any diva or other long-time celebrity includes transformation. People want to see their icons rise above hardships stronger than ever – it gives them hope. Deen’s choice to confront diabetes with a drug instead of with changes to diet and exercise was not just a poor health choice: it was also, arguably, poor brand strategy.
The list of celebrities who are making positive health choices and promoting healthy living is quite long. A few favorite examples are Beyonce’s partnership with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, Bill Clinton’s move from eating French fries to looking like one (the former president used a vegan diet to lose weight and combat heart disease), and Jamie Oliver winning the 2010 TED Prize for his work promoting nutrition in school cafeterias.
Time will tell whether Deen’s drug endorsement backfires. More importantly, as she celebrates her 65th birthday today (Happy Birthday, Mrs. Deen), let’s hope that, if not publicly, she is at least privately making healthier choices for herself and for her family.