A study found that public opinion surrounding the then-new coronavirus shifted after actor Tom Hanks was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 11, 2020, with some individuals taking the coronavirus more seriously as a result.
Published last month in the scientific journal Health Communications, the study surveyed 682 people about their attitudes toward COVID-19 immediately following Hanks’ diagnosis last year. Ninety percent had heard about the actor’s social media posts describing how he and his wife had contracted the disease.
Nearly half of those who were aware of Hank’s diagnosis revealed that their perception of COVID-19 changed after learning the news. Most participants wrote that the virus now seemed like more of a serious threat in their minds, and one said they felt “panicked” because Hanks “is rich and protected. He can get it. Anyone can get it.”
“While I don’t know Tom Hanks personally, I do know who he is,” another said. “I guess this made it a little more personal for me. I don’t have names or faces for anyone else who had coronavirus.”
Hanks’ celebrity status and affable, everyman qualities, combined with his social media update specifically mentioning self-quarantining, likely contributed to this reaction, the study said.
“What has changed is that it’s an indication that community spread is rampant, and we really need to be careful NOW,” another response highlighted in the research read. “It wasn’t just the news about Tom Hanks. It was the news about all the public figures who are self-quarantined after exposure. It’s just that of all those people (some I dislike intensely), Tom Hanks is the guy we feel we like and know, so hearing about him is closer to finding out that a friend or family member has it.”
In the future, using celebrities like Hanks as spokespersons for campaigns to fight illnesses may be a means of utilizing this unique effect and combating misinformation, the study suggests.
In a press release, Jessica Myrick, one of the study’s co-authors, said that “people who said they typically trust celebrities, friends, family, or Donald Trump for health information were more likely to say that Hanks’ announcement led to positive behavior change.”
“This suggests that public health officials and advocates may want to use these types of celebrity announcements to help reach people,” Myrick said. “They don’t rely as much on news or on scientists for health information.”
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