Celebrities Are Endorsing Covid Vaccines. Does It Help?


Pelé, Dolly Parton and the Dalai Lama have little in common apart from this: Over a few days in March, they became the latest celebrity case studies for the health benefits of Covid-19 vaccines.

“I just want to say to all of you cowards out there: Don’t be such a chicken squat,” Ms. Parton, 75, said in a video that she posted on Twitter after receiving her vaccine in Tennessee. “Get out there and get your shot.”

This is hardly the first time public figures have thrown their popularity behind an effort to change the behavior of ordinary people. In medicine, celebrity endorsements tend to echo or reinforce messages that health authorities are trying to publicize, whether it’s getting a vaccine, or other medical treatment. In 18th-century Russia, Catherine the Great was inoculated against smallpox as part of her campaign to promote the nationwide rollout of the procedure. Almost 200 years later, backstage at “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Elvis Presley received the polio vaccine in an effort to help reach at-risk teenagers.

But do the star-studded endorsements really work? Not necessarily. Epidemiologists say there are plenty of caveats and potential pitfalls — and little scientific evidence to prove that the endorsements actually boost vaccine uptake.

“Very few people actually do give the weight of expertise, for better or worse, to celebrities,” said René F. Najera, an epidemiologist and the editor of the History of Vaccines website, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Such posts are notable because they instantly allow millions of people to see the raw mechanics of immunization — needles and all — at a time when skepticism toward Covid vaccines has been stubbornly persistent in the United States and beyond. The rapid-fire testimonials by Pelé, Ms. Parton and the Dalai Lama in March, for example, collectively reached more than 30 million followers and prompted hundreds of thousands of engagements across Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. In April, the singer Ciara hosted a star-studded NBC special meant to promote vaccinations, with appearances by former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jennifer Hudson, Matthew McConaughey and others.

“These kind of endorsements might be especially important if trust in government/official sources is quite low,” Tracy Epton, a psychologist at the University of Manchester in Britain who has studied public health interventions during the coronavirus pandemic, said in an email.

That was the case in the 1950s, when Elvis Presley agreed to receive the polio vaccine to help the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis reach a demographic — teenagers — that was “difficult to educate and inspire through traditional means,” said Stephen E. Mawdsley, a lecturer in modern American history at the University of Bristol in Britain.

“I think Elvis helped to make getting vaccinated seem ‘cool’ and not just the responsible thing to do,” Dr. Mawdsley said.

Dr. Najera and other researchers have been convening focus groups of Americans to find out what has prompted them to agree — or not — to be vaccinated against Covid-19. He said the primary finding so far was that rates of uptake or hesitancy often corresponded to vaccine behavior among a given person’s racial, ethnic or socioeconomic peer group.

Ho Phi Huynh, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, said that vaccine endorsements from celebrities tended to have a “spectrum of effect” because the degree of star admiration varies so much from fan to fan. Some see a celebrity merely as entertainment, Dr. Huynh said, while others form attachments to them that may compensate for a lack of authentic relationships in their own lives.

“So going back to Dolly, if people perceive her to be a ‘typical liberal’ celebrity, there might be little influence for a large faction of the country,” he said.



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