The “Charlie Sheen Effect”

Researchers from San Diego State University have found that Charlie Sheen’s November 2015 announcement that he is HIV positive has raised public awareness about the disease, which they are dubbing this the “Charlie Sheen Effect.”

Dr. John W. Ayers and his colleagues looked at Google Trends for the period around the time of Sheen’s announcement, specifically looking for news stories and searches which included the terms HIV , condoms, HIV symptoms and HIV testing.

On the day of Sheen’s disclosure there was a 265%  increase in news reports mentioning HIV (97% of which also mentioned Sheen). There were more than 6500 stories on Google News alone, “which placed Sheen’s disclosure among the top 1% of HIV-related media days in the past 7 year.”


Dr. Ayers says “Public health is very good at deciding the message, but they’re very bad at responding to a message.”  He went on to say: “the Charlie Sheen effect is already the largest single driver of awareness and engagement online with HIV domestically.. The goal now needs to be to meet the needs of the people who are engaged. But there’s not a single HIV-prevention program that’s using the Charlie Sheen story.”

One of the co-authors is UC San Diego communications student Eric Lea. He says their findings  point out to health care providers and public health agencies that these types of celebrity announcements create periods of time when their public outreach efforts can be most effective.

“Next week, I want to see a change in how public health alliance groups send their message about HIV. I want to see Sheen engaged, also. He has 11.6 million followers on Twitter.”

This is yet another example of what Celebrity Diagnosis defined as the “Goody-Gaga Effect” back in 2011. It refers to the phenomenon of sharply increased volume of search traffic, for specific diseases or medical conditions, that correlates with a celebrity association with that disease or condition.

The Goody-Gaga Effect is named after the late British Reality TV personality, Jade Goody, and Lady Gaga based on their widely-publicized associations with cervical cancer and the autoimmune disorder lupus, respectively.



Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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