I, like many people, have a love-hate relationship with celebrity lifestyle brands. When I say this, I mean that I love to mock any website where a celebrity earnestly explains their life philosophy and then tries to sell you a very expensive pair of yoga pants (see: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James, and Blake Lively’s now-defunct Preserve, among others). I also mean that I hate myself every time I check out one of these sites “as a joke,” then find myself still clicking around on there three hours later, wondering if there are actually any health benefits to detoxing and filled with a sudden, inexplicable urge to purchase an area rug.
As a person who enjoys keeping up with scientific research, I know there are no health benefits to detoxing. As a person who lives in a tiny apartment, I know I don’t need an area rug. As a person who has devoted a lot of time to learning about media culture, I know there is no reason to trust a celebrity’s health advice. But there’s something about celebrity lifestyle brands that pushes me away from logic, into the extremes of either unquestioning belief or mockery — and for a long time, I wasn’t quite sure why.
But after writing my first book, a send-up of celebrity lifestyle and wellness culture, Glop: Nontoxic, Expensive Ideas That Will Make You Look Ridiculous and Feel Pretentious, I have a few more insights. Those insights weren’t included in the book — Glop is a humor book where my primary goal was seeing how many times I could use the word “colonic” in 200 pages — but I did accidentally learn a few actual facts about how celebrity lifestyle marketing operates along the way.
1. Celebrity Lifestyle Brands Were Kickstarted By Vincent Price (Kind Of)
Though everyone and their momager seems to have a lifestyle brand these days, we can easily trace the concept back to two figures — Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, who both pioneered the idea of offering a seemingly endless array of TV and radio shows, magazines, and products to allow fans to supposedly live like them.
However, while Winfrey and Stewart’s lifestyle empires look like what Goop and co. aspire to, it’s worth noting that both women came to cultural prominence as lifestyle personalities, rather than as actors or singers who decided to suddenly start giving advice about organic sunscreen and fitted sheets.
But making that particular jump is not unprecedented. Celebrities have been giving general life advice to the public for decades (i.e. Pat Boone’s strange 1954 book of Christian life advice for teens, Twixt Twelve and Twenty), and lifestyle brand-esque advice since at least 1965, when Vincent Price published the first celebrity cookbook.
Price is probably best known today as the narrator on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” but he was an enormous horror film star in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s — famous for things that had nothing to do with cooking, fashion, or home decor, just like today’s celeb lifestyle stars! But Price was a passionate amateur gourmet chef, and wrote A Treasury of Great Recipes with his wife, Mary Price, based on the many restaurants that they had encountered in their world travels, as well as meals they had cooked while entertaining. Price went on to pen a number of other cookbooks, release several “how to cook” records, and host a British cooking show in the early ‘70s — which perhaps makes him too focused on a single arena to be an exact parallel for today’s celebrity lifestyle gurus. But he certainly helped kick open the door for future TV stars who want to help you pick out the best mason jar for your personal needs.
What makes this even more interesting is the fact that lifestyle brands today are considered to occupy such an inherently feminized space — so much so that Goop satirically riffed on the concept a few years back. Though Snoop Dogg launched the gender-neutral stoner lifestyle brand Merry Jane in 2015, no major star has launched a lifestyle brand aimed at men.
2. There Are Psychological Mechanisms That May Explain Why We Trust Life Advice From Celebrities
But while that covers the how, it doesn’t quite get to why we’re often so likely to take advice from famous people. Why are we so eager to, say, have celebrity commencement speakers rather than professors (a trend that has only developed over the past few decades)? Why did 24% of parents surveyed in a 2009 study place “some trust” in the validity of celebrity vaccine advice? In 2013, Steve Hoffman and Charlie Tan, two researchers from Ontario’s McMasters University, undertook an analysis of decades of celebrity health endorsements to try to understand exactly that. Their results showed that there are potentially 14 different psychological mechanisms at work when we encounter a celebrity offering advice — and they make us more likely to believe whatever we’re being told.
Hoffman and Tan suggest that many of us end up inadvertently relying on the “signals” projected by a celebrity endorsing a certain piece of health advice — “[d]ue to the vaulted status of celebrities in society, their endorsements act as signals of superiority that distinguish the endorsed item from competitors, nudging people to change their health behaviors accordingly.” They also suggested that many celebrity endorsements rely on a psychological technique called “the halo effect,” which may make us believe that people who excel in one arena (say, acting) have more authority in all arenas (including health and wellness, relationship advice, or picking out attractive and durable luggage).
Of course, this isn’t necessarily news — marketers and psychologists have been aware of this information for a long time, and yes, this is only one study. But if you’re struggling to understand why you feel weirdly persuaded by, say, celebrity parenting advice or celebrity-endorsed makeup, that’s one potential answer.
3. It’s In A Lifestyle Brand’s Interest To Be Controversial
These days, debunking (or just straight-up insulting) celebrity lifestyle brands is a cottage industry. I mean, I should know, right? But while celeb lifestyle websites often appear to be head-slappingly out-of-touch, after I spent a few hours sifting through various archives (as well as news articles about said websites), I realized that it’s often in the interest of a celebrity lifestyle brand to get on our bad side.
Take Goop, the mother of all modern celeb lifestyle sites. From its launch in 2008, the site seemed to court criticism about its tone-deaf sensibilities, from comments like Paltrow’s “My life is good because I am not passive about it,” to regularly recommending that consumers purchase lifestyle items way out of the budget of most (sex toys made from 24K gold, anyone?)
Based on some thoroughly unscientific Google research I conducted, I found thousands of critical results. “6 terrible health tips from Gwyneth Paltrow,” “7 terrible health tips from Gwyneth Paltrow” (yup, they’re different articles), “Gwyneth Paltrow gives more bad advice in latest Goop”…and that’s just from the first page. And let us not forget classics like the uproar over whether or not it would actually cost $200 to make Paltrow’s daily breakfast smoothie, whether there is a scientific reason why one might want to steam their vagina, or the constant stream of “I lived like Gwyneth” articles (which, full disclosure, I have also written). You’d think being infamous for being out of touch — in an era when many expect celebrities to be more down to earth and engaged — would be a recipe for disaster.
But extreme advice is actually an easy — and wildly effective — way to get free and wide-ranging publicity. A 2015 Fast Company profile on Goop noted that the site gets 3.75 million clicks per month. Are those genuine clicks of interest, or hate-clicks? It doesn’t actually matter (especially since, as previously noted, psychology can turn the latter to the former after a little exposure). A 2011 Stanford Graduate School of Business report showed that the truism about bad publicity being good for business is often accurate: it noted that “in some cases negative publicity can increase sales when a product or company is relatively unknown, simply because it stimulates product awareness,” citing an investigation that found that unknown authors who received a negative review in the New York Times saw their sales jump 45%.
And the folks who run the celebrity lifestyle brands are more aware of this than anyone. “We’ll link to a $15,000 gold dildo just to troll people,” Paltrow noted at a 2016 speaking gig. “We look for products that will create that kind of reaction.” Just this September, Paltrow told LinkedIn Pulse, “When you have an e-commerce business, no press is bad press” (an attitude Paltrow also presented in reaction to a 2015 robbery of a Goop pop-up store).
So, far from haplessly issuing controversial statements, celeb lifestyle blogs may be creating calculated outrage for the sake of press. Does that mean we have to stop making fun of them, or documenting any troubling things they say, or occasionally enjoying them, if we feel so inclined? Of course not. But it could be worthwhile to remember that our attention is what gives celebrity lifestyle brands their power—and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if that attention is good or bad.