In 1998, hotel chain Holiday Inn Express launched a popular marketing campaign that showed experts (surgeons, pilots, nuclear engineers, mathematics professors) completing tasks in their fields of expertise. As the commercial goes on, viewers learn these people aren’t experts at all, but just regular folks who–and here’s the punch line–happened to stay at a Holiday Inn Express the night before.
The ad’s meaning is obvious: staying in a Holiday Inn Express makes you a genius, so naturally, you can do anything—surgery, operate a helicopter, solve difficult equations, thwart a nuclear meltdown…no sweat!
The ads were funny and very popular, running on air for over 10 years. While the ad was meant to be a joke when it first ran almost two decades ago, sadly, today, too many people seem to mistake those ads for reality.
Consider, for instance, the announcement by the Partnership for a Healthy America that supermodel Cindy Crawford will be the featured speaker at the organization’s annual summit in Washington DC.
This might make you wonder: What does this organization do? Is it dedicated to helping retired models? Perhaps the Partnership (as it’s known) helps supermodels integrate into normal society by offering financial guidance, how-to seminars on eating like a normal person, and TED-type talks from former models that now confidently wear mom jeans. If this is the case, Crawford makes total sense as a keynote speaker.
Yet, reviewing the organization’s website, one quickly learns that the Partnership has very little to do with the modeling industry and is instead “devoted to working with the private sector to ensure the health of our nation’s youth by solving the childhood obesity crisis.”
Childhood obesity is a very complex issue. Activists have blamed everything from Happy Meals to sugary drinks to cartoon characters on cereal boxes to unhealthy school meals. Yet the reason for American kids’ corporeal abundance remains complicated; it’s often not one, but several things that contribute to a child’s unhealthy eating habits.
Of course, considering the issue’s complexity, one would hope an organization as serious as the Partnership would want to hear from experts in the field of obesity research, not from a woman who dropped out of college three decades ago in order to walk the catwalks of Milan and Paris. Admittedly, Crawford made the right decision, which resulted in an extremely successful career as a model, but that doesn’t mean that she is well suited to discuss knotty medical issues, especially ones that have befuddled the medical community for decades.
Additionally, the Partnership ought to at least consider how the unrealistic body images that women’s magazines and the models that they airbrush onto their pages create, warping people’s expectations about what “healthy” even means.
If the Partnership really wanted to help kids acquire better eating patterns, they’d work to diminish the role of celebrities, rather than promoting them as authorities on the topic. After all, fad diets, dangerous cleanses, and questionable nutrition supplements are often driven by various entertainers pushing them on the public.
Consider Gwyneth Paltrow, who both personally and through her lifestyle site GOOP, regularly doles out questionable health advice. One recent GOOP post featured “Medical Medium” Anthony William–a doctor who claims he “was born with the unique ability to converse with a high-level spirit who provides him with extraordinarily accurate health information that’s often far ahead of its time.” So, diet advice from ghosts. Seems safe.
Another celebrity with no training but huge confidence in her ability to guide others is Alicia Silverstone. In her book, Kind Mama, Silverstone, who is known appropriately for her role in the 90s hit “Clueless,” tells moms that miso soup is better at preventing dangerous and highly infectious diseases—like measles—than vaccinations. Silverstone also says meat, dairy and tampons cause infertility, and promotes the idea that a plant-based diet can “demolish your need for pharmaceutical drugs” even for nightmarishly serious conditions as depression, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.
Songstress Katy Perry is another dangerous promoter of bad dietary advice. Tweeting out a picture to her whopping 96 million Twitter followers, Perry bragged that she takes a daily cocktail of 26 vitamins and supplements. Yet the medical community (you know, the guys who went to medical school instead of cranking out bad pop songs) often warns of the dangerous side effects of the overuse of these nutritional supplements. Some studies have shown they increase the risk of developing cancer and heart disease. Maybe Katy can write a song about that.
Holiday Inn meant their ad campaign to be amusing but it was a prescient peek into the future. In his new book The Death of Expertise, author Tom Nichols explains that these celebrities are simply taking advantage of the public’s easy access to information. According to Nichols, that access has enabled “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
We make over 200 food-related decisions every day. It’s vital that we make these decisions with the help of good, science-based, evidence-based information and with the help of people who know what the heck they’re talking about. Celebrities usually don’t. The Partnership shouldn’t pretend otherwise.