Long before cigarette smoking became regarded as America’s national scourge, movie actors like John Wayne did commercials for various brands, talking straight into the camera about how much they enjoyed toking on cancer sticks. Even veteran journalist Mike Wallace interrupted his 1950s-era TV newscasts to say a few words about Philip Morris cigarettes: “Here’s why I smoke ‘em, and why I enjoy ‘em,” Wallace quips on a vintage recording on YouTube.

In light of overwhelming scientific evidence that says smoking is a bad idea, those old celebrity endorsements could be considered borderline criminal. And yet, back in the day, people bought up cigarettes and smoked them, following the commercial lead of their TV and movie heroes.

So, if today’s natural health products are considered infinitely better for people, why do some manufacturers – like those of cleanses – still rely on celebrity pitches? Shouldn’t scientific research be the determining factor in buying and using these high-priced products? Has the celebrity endorsement simply become what it’s often historically proved – just an easier way to sell an overpriced, generally ineffective product?

Advice you can admire

In an odd way, the celebrity effect on selling a product might be compared to the effect of negative political ads: People often raise an eyebrow or two at the claims made. But they often pay more attention to those ads more than they would to, say, an earnest recitation from someone fairly ordinary.

What’s likely at work, then, is the sense of self-empowerment that comes from being on the inside track with a product, especially when it’s pitched by a celebrity with whom many of us would like to identify. Beyonce doing Pepsi ads works for countless women who admire or who’d like to be Beyonce. And if buying Pepsi will help to reinforce those feelings, then so be it. Even if drinking Pepsi provides next to no nutritional value.

When it comes to the cleanse industry, the celebrity pitches are legion. What’s interesting, though, is how some of those are structured. Magazine and TV puff pieces about cleanses often feature the pitch-person’s mug shot right next to a shot of the product – about as clear an endorsement as you can get. However, many of those same cleanse manufacturers convey that aspect differently on their web sites – the logical place to look for in-depth information about the product:

  • BluePrint Cleanse includes a drily designed page of comments from health professionals as well as a graphically more interesting page of celebrity testimonials. The difference is subtle, but there: The latter is easy to digest, the former not so much.
  • Bliss Cleanse, on the other hand, uses customer testimonials and photos/video of the company’s founders – a pair of ordinary looking “health coaches” — to sing the products’ praises. Their media kit includes “reviews”, but nary a celebrity mention.
  • Cooler Cleanse, by comparison, goes all out, including graphically attractive links to more than 80 media stories about their products, many of which feature celebrities or suggest a celebrity effect – such as making “The O List” in O, the Oprah Magazine.

“Help me make up my mind”

With no clear-cut celebrity method in use, the rise in popularity of cleanse products might be due to a curious hybrid reasoning that goes something like this: “I’m glad there’s at least some scientific evidence that these things actually work, and it’s good to see so many weight- and health-conscious celebrities endorsing them. But I also like that real people swear by them. With all of that, I might as well give them a try.”

While there’s not much evidence out there saying that cleanse products hurt you – unlike what we now know about cigarettes – the preceding rationalization sounds an awful lot like something that could have been heard during the 1950s: “Scientists aren’t saying that smoking is bad for you, and John Wayne and Mike Wallace smoke cigarettes. So do a few of my friends. I might as well give them a try.”

Basic celebrity endorsement tactics might not have changed much. Except they’re now being used to hawk products that, far as some health professionals are saying, won’t lead to an early grave.

A money pit, maybe. But a healthier money pit.

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