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Jennifer Aniston and other celebrities endorse vaccines. Experts say their pleas may not help.

Jennifer Aniston in January 2020. (Monica Almeida/Reuters)

Jennifer Aniston is best known for her role in “Friends,” but these days the actress is avoiding some members of her inner circle who are not vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Last week, her InStyle interview made headlines after she told the magazine that people have a “moral and professional obligation to inform” others about their vaccination status.

“I’ve just lost a few people in my weekly routine who have refused or did not disclose, and it was unfortunate,” Aniston said to the magazine.

The star then supported her vaccination remarks in a Thursday post on her Instagram story.

Responding to a question about why she’s concerned about unvaccinated people around her if she’s received a shot herself, Aniston wrote, “Because if you have the variant, you are still able to give it to me.”

“I may get slightly sick but I will not be admitted to a hospital and or die,” Aniston wrote to more than 37 million followers. “BUT I CAN give it to someone else who does not have the vaccine and whose health is compromised (or has a previous existing condition) — and therefore I would put their lives at risk.”

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“THAT is why I worry,” she said. “We have to care about more than just ourselves here.”

A representative for Aniston declined to make the actress available for comment Saturday.

Star-studded photo ops and high-profile vaccine endorsements have become a major part of public health messaging in the pandemic era. Politicians, celebrities, athletes and religious leaders have encouraged others to get vaccinated and follow scientific guidance with varying results — from helpful to ineffective to harmful, with one researcher saying friends and neighbors are the most fruitful agents for change.

Nonetheless, celebrities are posting.

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“I just want to say to all of you cowards out there: Don’t be such a chicken squat,” country singer Dolly Parton said in a March video posted to Twitter after she was inoculated. “Get out there and get your shot.”

On Aug. 1, Ariana Grande shared with her 257 million Instagram followers a “gentle reminder to please get your vaccines.” Last month, teen singer Olivia Rodrigo stood pink-clad in the White House briefing room, encouraging young people to get their shots — aviator-sunglasses selfies with President Biden included. In March, former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter starred in an ad urging vaccinations, with Bush saying he was looking forward to Opening Day at the home of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers — “with a full stadium.”

Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter urge the public to get vaccinated in an ad aired by the Ad Council on March 11. (Video: Ad Council)

As vaccination rates stagnate amid distrust and misinformation about the doses, such campaigns allow the message to quickly spread to millions of people. Yet they are not new: For centuries, celebrities have used their high-profile voices to encourage medical behaviors, many times becoming the faces of vaccination drives.

According to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was one of the most notable promoters of variolation — an early method of immunization that included infecting people with a mild form of a disease — to prevent smallpox, which killed his young son.

More than 200 years later, megastar Elvis Presley received the polio vaccine backstage at “The Ed Sullivan Show” in an effort to get teenagers to want inoculations. A national health charity then offered to send a signed photo of the event to any of the singer’s fan clubs that could prove that all its members were vaccinated, according to Stephen E. Mawdsley, a historian at the University of Bristol who studies 20th-century American medicine and public health.

Mawdsley’s research found that although celebrity endorsements can help health officials reach a wider audience, they may not be the driving force behind changing people’s behavior.

In Presley’s successful 1950s vaccination campaign — which helped polio cases drop by 90 percent when the decade ended — the historian says it was less about the thrill of rock-and-roll than it was about creating peer networks with teenagers who promoted the vaccination.

The March of Dimes invited teens to share insight into their reluctance. The result was the creation of Teens Against Polio, a group that helped increase vaccination rates among young people.

Presley may not have been the primary factor of the polio campaign’s success, but one notable name helped promote a lifesaving screening five decades later.

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In 2000, journalist Katie Couric dedicated a “Today” show segment to colonoscopies — while undergoing the procedure on the air. The number of colon cancer screenings soared for about nine months after the segment aired, according to research from the University of Michigan Medical School.

“These findings suggest that a celebrity spokesperson can have a substantial impact on public participation in preventive care programs,” the scientists said.

But not all celebrity health campaigns serve the public well, a University of Pennsylvania professor says.

High-profile stars and influencers can be useful, said Damon Centola, a Penn sociology professor. Their wide recognition and admiration make them essential for marketing products and raising awareness. The problem comes when the sell is a more complex idea that involves social norms. In those cases, he said, relying on fame and influence generally has been unsuccessful.

While people look to influencers to learn about the latest makeup trend or skin-care brand, they often do not appreciate their advice when it comes to schools for their children or getting a coronavirus vaccine, Centola said. In those cases, the opinions of their neighbors, friends and family members are the ones that matter most — the main shortcoming with celebrity-driven campaigns.

“When people resist an idea, when they’re uncomfortable with it or, most importantly, everyone around them is, then you get into this space of people looking to the people around them to see what’s acceptable,” he said.

In fact, having the likes of Aniston, Grande and Lin-Manuel Miranda share their masked-up, shot-in-the-arm posts can have the opposite effect, the sociologist said.

“That really doesn’t work when people are embedded in networks and have peers and friends and people at school and people at home who think that that’s a really bad idea,” Centola said. “Everyone already knows about this thing, and there’s a lot of resistance to it. Telling people about [vaccination] more makes them feel a bit resentful; they believe it less, and they get overwhelmed.”

Vaccine hesitancy cuts across different lines including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ideology and location. One of the most notable differences in vaccination rates is between urban and rural areas.

According to findings that the Kaiser Family Foundation Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor published in June, people living in urban communities were more apt to report positive attitudes toward the vaccines — with 76 percent of respondents saying they had gotten at least one dose or would get it as soon as possible. In rural communities, that number was 57 percent.

With health and government officials looking for the most effective ways to address distrust, Centola said evidence points to information shared among neighbors and friends.

“The way we’re using social influence is a little outdated,” he said. “Giving some groups a vehicle for talking about it and supporting each other in the communities is key. That’s how there’s information contagion, which can grow and spread around the nation.”

The “average person can sometimes be the best influencer,” Centola said.

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