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Seeing Stars

Health-related causes and products are at the fore of the world of promotions. And the fight over which celeb speaks for what is a fierce one.

January 12, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suppose you've got a beverage to sell that's nutritious but not trendy.

Or you're trying to tell the world about a devastating disease, hoping to raise awareness--and millions in research funds to find a cure.

Quick! Find a celebrity spokesperson. Then sit back and watch those profits or contributions roll in.

How about pop singer Amy Grant?

Sorry--she was last seen with milk on her upper lip, one of the latest stars in the "Where's your mustache?" campaign of the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board.

Shelley Fabares? Tied up with the Alzheimer's Assn.

Jane Wyman? Busy with the Arthritis Foundation.

Pierce Brosnan? Spoken for as a women's health advocate.

Betty White? Pushing a senior HMO to other golden girls and boys.

Snagging a celebrity to promote a cause or product--be it the environment, politics, animal rights or life insurance--is nothing new. But health-related causes and products are taking center stage, thanks to a burgeoning consumer interest in health, a graying population more vulnerable to illness, and an explosion in the number of health-related organizations.

"Over the last three or four years, health-related causes, along with child-related causes--which are often health-related, too--have become No. 1 in terms of donor interest and overall need," says Lisa Paulsen, president and CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation in Studio City. A philanthropic arm of the entertainment industry, the foundation raises money for hundreds of charities and links celebrities with causes.

The growing popularity of stars as spokespersons for health causes or products can be explained in two words, says Amy Heinemann, assistant director of marketing for the International Dairy Foods Assn., which administers the milk mustache campaign: Celebrities sell.

Since the milk campaign began in 1995, sales of milk are up, Heinemann says, and she credits her campaign, along with the "Got Milk?" promotions. A U.S. Department of Agriculture representative confirms that 1996 milk sales were up 1.1% over 1995. That translates, Heinemann says, into $220 million in additional sales for milk processors.

Celebrities who promote a health-related cause can raise big bucks. "The Jane Wyman Humanitarian Dinner this year grossed about $335,000," says Jeannie Whited, Los Angeles spokeswoman for the Arthritis Foundation. The actress, who does not accept a fee, has been helping the foundation for 31 years.

"It's no accident that Alzheimer's disease [researchers] received 65% more in research funds" for fiscal year 1991, after Fabares testified before a joint subcommittee on aging, says Peter Braun, executive director of the Los Angeles Alzheimer's Assn.

"Celebrities can make a huge difference," agrees Paulsen of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Pierce Brosnan, in his work for the National Women's Cancer Research Alliance, one of the foundation's projects, has raised $12 million in the last five years, she estimates.

Sharon Stone is serving as chairwoman of the campaign for AIDS research for AmFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research), a New York-based organization devoted to funding research. "Her objective is to raise $76 million by World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 1998," says Jay Blotcher, an AmFAR spokesman. "She's doing well," he says, although he declined to provide figures.

Stars who show up for fund-raisers or to host telethons can also have a domino effect. "They will usually be able to talk one or two of their buds into coming," says Rene Wedel, a Los Angeles actress and broadcaster who volunteers for the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

Some causes become so hip that celebrities seek them out. Heinemann says she often gets calls from agents or managers. AIDS and breast cancer causes are so popular, complains a public relations representative for an unrelated organization, that it's sometimes difficult to find a well-known celebrity to take on other causes.

That's especially true if the disease is little known. Such is the case for Sjogren's syndrome, says Rhoda Dennison, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation. The autoimmune disease is marked by dry eyes and mouth and overwhelming fatigue. "If we had a nationally known celebrity, at least people would pay attention," says Dennison, "but we can't even find out who [in Hollywood] has the disease."

Some celebrities shy away from serving as spokespersons for certain diseases, fearing their association may stigmatize them and lead to fewer offers of work. One older actor didn't mind that people knew he had prostate enlargement, an acquaintance recalled, but didn't want anyone to think he had prostate cancer.

But fewer and fewer diseases seem to carry stigmas these days, says Danielle Guttman, vice president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. In fact, she now considers prostate cancer a hip cause.

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