The medical world is no stranger to shilling (see, for example, the kickbacks that Purdue Pharma paid doctors who helped hook people on Oxycontin, generating billions in blood-money for the "philanthropist" Sackler family), and doctors are cashing in on the social media influencer market, selling everything from Quaker oats to deodorant.
In theory, these docs have been trained on the ethical lines they must not cross when participating in marketing campaigns — unlike the med school students who have become the shock troops in a new wave of often sketchy influencer marketing campaigns.
Whether it's someone studying to be a dermatologist using Instagram to promote skin products or a baby-doc with a fitness-oriented social media account selling protein powders, the appeal of med student marketing for cosmetics, mattresses, and (eventually) quack remedy peddlers is easy to understand: you get the white coat and attendant medical credibility without having to navigate all the ethical strictures, and at a lower price.
Sufficiently intrigued, I fell into a digital rabbit hole that surfaced dozens of fellow med students moonlighting as social media influencers, and the partnerships grew ever more questionable. Some accounts featured sponsored posts advertising watches and clothes from Lululemon; another linked back to a personal blog that included a page that allowed followers to "shop my Instagram." A popular fitness-oriented account, hosted by an aspiring M.D., promoted protein powder and pre-workout supplements. A future dermatologist showcased skin care products. Another future M.D.'s account highlights the mattresses, custom maps, furniture rental services, and food brand that, according to the posts, help her seamlessly live the life of a third-year med student.
In the aggregate, the ethics of these accounts left me conflicted. Many of these influencers are using their accounts and personal brands for objectively good, medically sound causes—a number of them promote important public health messages like getting an annual flu shot or registering as an organ donor. I can even empathize with the impulse to partner with companies to advertise products—med school is expensive, and I can imagine advertising is somewhat lucrative. But the companies are almost certainly targeting them because they know that med students can offer some veneer of medical objectivity to their products. By engaging in these partnerships, med students have, perhaps unsuspectingly, chosen to put their "medical credential"—often prominently displayed in a name or Instagram bio—up for sale.
The Latest Crop of Instagram Influencers? Medical Students. [Vishal Khetpal/Slate]