Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Celebrity advice, BMJ and lessons for procurement scrutiny

The latest issue of the British Medical Journal includes an interesting paper on the why the public follow celebrities' medical advice. To me, this paper is particularly relevant to the current CLG Committee Inquiry into local government procurement but is also relevant to procurement decision making, in general, when perceived 'experts' (celebrities) provide advice.

The BMJ paper discusses the positive influence which celebrities can have in highlighting health issues, but cautions against celebrity 'quacks' whose advice is listened to, even when it is dangerous, if adhered to. The question is 'Why do celebrities utterances and endorsements carry so much weight even though they lack any evidence, qualifications and specific experience?' The paper draws on economics, marketing, and psychology literature to provide an answer.

One of the reasons is that the public are bombarded with competing information and in order to make sense of that information:
people naturally look for signals that indicate one source as being more credible and effective than another. Owing to the vaulted status of celebrities in society, their endorsements act as signals of superiority that distinguish the endorsed item from competitors, encouraging people to change their health behaviors accordingly. 
[Celebrity] credibility may stem from the halo effect of celebrities' success, which biases people's judgments of celebrities' other traits and gives them a cloak of generalised trustworthiness that extends well beyond their industry or expertise. Celebrities are in turn perceived to have greater credibility than their non-celebrity counterparts, such as doctors, despite having less medical knowledge and experience.  
I don't see the problem of celebrity advice being isolated to the medical world. I also feel that 'celebrity status' can be more widely defined - isn't it something about putting someone on a pedestal. I have frequently observed the advice of procurement specialists being swallowed up in the aura of 'celebrity' status.
I see 'celebrities' speaking well beyond their qualifications, experience and expertise, yet somehow their 'advice' given greater weight that those who should actually be listened to.

Of course blame should not always be led at the feet of the celebrity - are they to  blame when someone asks them to give an opinion on an area beyond their ken?

As I observe many of the Inquiries which focus on procurement, I can't help but conclude that the Select Committees may also be vulnerable to listening to 'celebrity advice' on procurement. My observation is that they ascribe celerity status to some witnesses - possibly because they view anyone from the outside as 'better placed'. It doesn't seem to matter that some of the witnesses lack the qualification, evidence and expertise, and are standing on 'feet of clay'.

In the medical world, the BMJ paper suggests potentially:
  1. Enacting restrictions on celebrity endorsements to ensure the messages presented are supported by research evidence;
  2. Requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest.  
Wouldn't those taking advice on procurement do well to heed those same suggestions.

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