Deep-fried butter balls. Egg-bacon-burgers on donuts. Fried cheesecake. These are not recommended foods for someone suffering from a chronic metabolic disorder, but this week Paula Deen, the Food Network cooking show host behind such heart disease-inducing recipes, made public that she has type 2 diabetes, a disease she was diagnosed with three years ago. Deen also announced that she is leading a campaign called ‘Diabetes in a New Light’, which is being launched by Denmark’s Novo Nordisk to promote the company’s $500 million-a-year diabetes drug Victoza (liraglutide) in the US.
Deen, who disclosed that she takes Victoza to control her blood sugar, isn’t the first star to turn around and warn against the very thing that made her famous when faced with a life-threatening illness. Actor Wayne McLaren, who posed as the Marlboro Man in cigarette ad campaigns, testified before the US Congress in favor of anti-smoking legislation prior his untimely death from lung cancer.
Celebrity endorsements of drugs are not without controversy either. In 2008, in response to a congressional probe, New York-based Pfizer ended its long television ad campaign for its cholesterol treatment Lipitor (atorvastatin), which featured the celebrity “doctor” Robert Jarvik, who developed an artificial heart implant but was not licensed to practice medicine.
But Novo Nordisk may have a bigger problem than proper execution of celebrity branding. Allen Adamson, managing director at the New York branding firm Landor, expressed surprise at Novo’s decision to work with Deen. “She’s very provocative,” he told Nature Medicine. “How do you take a poster child for what not to eat and turn her into an asset?” But, he acknowledges, she could also turn heads in a good way, by being folksy, credible and intimately related with the disease.
Success for Deen and her new pharma partner is going to require an earnest and complete transformation on her part, one that clearly did not begin immediately after her diagnosis in 2008. Since then, Deen has continued to host cooking shows featuring ultra-high-fat, carbohydrate-rich dishes—not exactly the healthy diet she is now promoting on behalf of Novo. But “she’s relatable, she’s charismatic and she is living with diabetes,” says Ken Inchausti, director of media relations for Novo’s US operations. “We need people to see her as a patient now.”