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Can 'Rock Stars of Science' Cut Through the Noise?

Kurt Iswarienko

Last year, men's fashion magazine GQ featured an unusual ad in their June 2009 issue: six full-page photos of scientists rocking out with pop stars. The ad, named Rock Stars of Science, was supposed to make science look hip to young people and possibly inspire a few new career paths. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins led the charge by donning black shades and guitar jamming with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. But they took some flak from bloggers who were upset that the researchers consisted exclusively of 11 white men.

They're back again for GQ's December 2010 issue, and this time sponsor Geoffrey Beene has made a few changes. At 17 scientists and 8 stars, the cast is larger. And among the researchers are four women, including Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn.

Producer Meryl Comer, who launched both campaigns, started the project after a 2008 survey revealed a scant 4% of Americans could name a living scientist. After watching her husband suffer from Alzheimer's disease, she says, she believes research is crucial to America's future.

She hopes the new ads will satisfy some of the female critics. The problem, she says, is that many women scientists worried that dressing up with pop stars would make academics take them less seriously. Having a Nobel laureate do it might make things a bit different, she says. "I think Elizabeth Blackburn broke the barrier in 5-inch stilettos."

Last year's bloggers also argued that the campaign promoted rock stars more than scientists. One even went so far as to suggest the photographers dress up one of the musicians, Sheryl Crow, in a lab coat and teach her how to use scientific instruments instead. Alzheimer's researcher Frank Longo of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was in the 2010 campaign, finds that idea puzzling. "I think that would look … a little overdone. Sheryl Crow's probably not going to spend hours in a lab working on experiments."

The idea is to make scientists look more human, says science writer Chris Mooney, co-author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, which bemoaned, among other things, the poor social status of scientists. A famous celebrity will make people take notice of the researchers as well, says the writer, who helped promote this year's campaign.

Advertising blogger Dan Goldgeier thinks the campaign is a good idea, yet he's skeptical that an ad in a print magazine is the best way to reach Generation Y. He laments that the 2009 videos were difficult to share on Facebook or Twitter, which could kill a story in its infancy for young netizens, an issue the designers corrected for the 2010 campaign.

Comer hopes to turn the 2011 campaign into a road show that will perform live on college campuses. That could be an effective strategy since going straight to colleges could be a better way to impact their careers, says Goldgeier.

*This article has been corrected. It originally said the videos on the Rock Stars of Science Web site were difficult to share, but has been amended to say that was true only for the 2009 campaign.