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Ethos, pathos, logos

Exploring the Goop Lab Through a Rhetorical Lens

A white, reclaimed wood table, with a variety of bundled herbs, and dried herbs in simple but elegant pots.
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

In 2008, Gwyneth Paltrow launched the goop brand to promote her lifestyle choices, and to encourage other women (because her audience is mostly women) to follow her on her journey to wellness and well-being. The first asset, a newsletter, shared recipes, detox and meditation advice, and beauty tips. Since then, the goop brand has moved into fashion, recipe books, a skin care line and fragrance, and furniture. Physical goop Labs exist in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London and New York. There is a goop newsletter and fashion line for men. Media assets include a website, magazine, podcast and a wellness symposium (goop.com, 2020). In 2020, Netflix released The goop Lab, a six episode program on the popular streaming service, with Paltrow as its star.

How does Gwyneth Paltrow do it? In 2013, Star magazine named her the most hated celebrity the same week People magazine named her most beautiful (goop.com, 2020). In a 2017 AdAge interview, Paltrow identified two different demographics for goop: “a very affluent shopper, and… our reader demographic…still on the affluent side… Women, median age 34, half are married, half have children, educated and household income of $100,000” (Pasquarelli, 2017). With likely around one million newsletter subscribers (a total guess; the goop website said the newsletter had 400,000 subscribers in 2011), more than 530,000 Facebook followers, 103,000 Twitter followers, 1.4 million Instagram followers, 73,000 YouTube subscribers, and a brand that is estimated to be worth US$250 million (Caulfield, 2020), Paltrow has convinced millions of her fans to follow her advice, and try crazy (in my opinion) cleanses and detoxes, all because of her name and celebrity status.

Why do we, and the educated, affluent women Paltrow describes as her audience, follow the advice of a celebrity over the advice of licensed medical and health professionals? Some would say that Paltrow is no different than the snake oil salesmen of the past, and others have likened her advice to voodoo. Should the advice and practices Paltrow endorses be compared to alternative medicine, such as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or acupuncture? Or is it a category all on its own? As Timothy Caulfield describes:

We seem to be in a unique period in cultural history where we have more tolerance for pseudoscience…This has made room for celebrities to step in. Gwyneth is an icon in the world of fashion and a movie star, but increasingly, her brand is dispensing health advice. (McFarling, 2016)

While Paltrow is not the only celebrity to support or endorse different ways of thinking in the health and wellness realm, she is definitely the one that fuels the most discussion around the validity of the methods and science she promotes.

This paper will examine The goop Lab to evaluate the rhetorical devices used to promote the lifestyle and health recommendations endorsed by Paltrow, and try to gain an understanding of how Paltrow became an “expert” in the field.

Where does goop fit?

What type of science or medicine does goop align with? Is it true biomedicine or traditional medicine? Or does it fall into one of the vague categories that includes “Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM),” “integrated/integrative,” “unconventional,” or just plain pseudoscience? After watching The goop Lab, it can be difficult to decide. Complementary and Alternative Medicine could fit the bill, since it is considered a catch-all for a variety of health practices, including chiropractic, energy healing, herbal medicine, homeopathy, meditation, naturopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine (Derkatch, 2016, p. 1). In fact, terms such as “alternative,” “complementary,” and “unconventional” are often considered by medical professionals to be similar, and defined as items not part of conventional medicine, and not taught or used in conventional medicine (Ng et al., 2016, p. 5). Meanwhile, “integrated/integrative” medicine can be characterized by what is part of and taught in conventional medicine, and the “combination of conventional and unconventional medicine, accounting for the whole person, and preventative maintenance of health” (Ng et al., 2016, p. 6).

Perhaps the methods used in The goop Lab could be considered “junk science,” which Park (2000) describes as “deliberately designed to fool or befuddle nonscientists” and “consists of far-fetched or implausible scientific interpretations that are not supported by scientific evidence” (p. 164). Maybe Paltrow is just a “quack,” capitalizing on her audiences’ desire for medical goods and information (Derkatch, 2016, p. 25). Quacks have nothing against established biomedical practitioners; rather, they mimic the ways biomedical experts practice and use biomedicine’s language to attract customers and followers in a very competitive arena (Derkatch, 2016, p. 25).

Finally, The goop Lab could possibly be considered pseudoscience, which Dawes (2018) defines as having two distinct features. First, it must lack the well-known characteristics of a science, and second, it must appear to be a science, which means that it presents a systematic body of beliefs and practices (p. 286). Daempfle (2013) further defines pseudoscience as a body of knowledge and methods presented as scientific, but not based in scientific knowledge: “Science is based on verifiable empirical evidence, but pseudoscience is based on emotion and belief” (p. 112).

Ethos, logos or pathos: What would Aristotle say?

I will admit that while watching The goop Lab, I did, at times, find myself almost believing some of the methods and theories presented, which is what makes it difficult to determine if Paltrow uses ethos, logos or pathos in her rhetorical methods. Paltrow is very wealthy and has done well for herself. She can likely afford large amounts of help and support (personal trainers, nannies, personal cooks, etc.) to support her in her life. She claims that she practices what she preaches on her website and Netflix program. She also does a really good job playing the role of the “every woman,” with the same concerns around health and well-being as the average American woman (which is probably why she has won two Golden Globe awards and an Academy award). As such, she is drawing on her ethos and her authority to speak on the subject, as well as her logos, which is her logical arguments to try her new cleanse or magnetic therapy — if it works for her, it will work for us.

In The goop Lab Paltrow continues her use of ethos and logos, calling the real-world examples in each episode “case studies” (very scientific), and also starts each episode with the disclaimer “The following series is designed to entertain and inform — not provide medical advice. You should always consult your doctor when it comes to your personal health, or before you start any treatment” (Paltrow et al., 2020).

However, Paltrow’s strongest rhetorical method is pathos, and her ability to sway us emotionally. Throughout The goop Lab, participants in the various activities (all of whom are goop staff), share their stories of trauma, mental illness, sexual dissatisfaction and so on, to justify why they want to participate in the research and experiences. Sharing these stories throughout the series allows goop staffers to demonstrate that they are just like us; if we try these experiments as well, we could become more happy/self-aware/energized just like the members of goop. By primarily drawing on pathos in her various media, Paltrow is doing exactly what Daempfle (2013) describes as a key part of the success of pseudoscience, which is employing a groupthink mentality: “the more people accept an idea put forth, the deeper the beliefs are ingrained into the culture… Pseudoscience becomes stronger the more and more people believe it…” (p. 117). Even specific turns of phrase that Paltrow and her colleagues use throughout the program are meant to draw on the emotions of the viewer, words and phrases such as “own it,” “truth,” “peaceful” and “energy” (Paltrow et al., 2020). The word “energy” is used so often in this program that a viewer can start to feel as though they will simply never have enough of it in their life, so why even bother anymore?

Breaking down specific episodes of The goop Lab

The first episode in the series, titled “The Healing Trip,” is perhaps the most “scientific,” and possibly the most believable of all the topics covered. This episode starts with its own disclaimers (in addition to the general disclaimer for the show mentioned above) which include “We know that psychedelics are controversial” and “We want to give information to our community, so they can make up their own mind” (Paltrow et al., 2020). Both of these statements fall into the buckets of logos and pathos — viewers have a variety of opinions on illegal drugs and drug use (logos), but makes it clear that it is up to us to decide if this method of healing is appropriate for us (pathos).

Four goop staffers travelled to Jamaica for a psychedelic retreat under the guidance of “psychedelic elders.” One staff member wanted to get her creativity back, another wanted the psycho-spiritual experience, and two wanted to deal with past trauma and start healing. We spend half of the episode watching these four people laying on the floor, beautiful scenery in the background, laughing, crying and hugging each other. Interspersed with these scenes are case studies — real people telling their stories of their experiences with psychedelics, including a cancer survivor with anxiety that the cancer will come back, and a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The use of these real examples draws on ethos and pathos: people just like you and me, dealing with issues that we could be dealing with, proving how this treatment helped them heal. The episode also introduces viewers to Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health, and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canada. According to its website (2020), MAPS Canada’s mission is to conduct and publish scientific research and education supporting the beneficial uses of psychedelic medicines, “including treatment for medical conditions, neuroscience, creativity and spirituality.” In the episode, Haden describes psychedelics as medicines, and “medicines of connections,” as well as his desire to “explore psychedelics as healing modalities” (Paltrow et al., 2020).

Using a university professor to support her argument around the benefits of psychedelics for healing strengthens Paltrow’s ethos on this topic. University professors are often thought to be experts in their fields, and by associating with Haden, Paltrow is seen as an authority on the use of psychedelics as well. I stated earlier that “The Healing Trap” is the most believable episode of The goop Lab. Marijuana is legal across Canada and in many states and is known for its use to help ease pain and anxiety, and as a sleep aid. Based on these facts, Paltrow uses logos to show that psychedelics could be the next level of illegal drugs used to heal.

Would you take a cold shower to deal with your stress? According to Wim Hof, “Cold water is a great way to learn how to deal with stress” (Paltrow et al., 2020). The second episode of The goop Lab takes six employees to Lake Tahoe to learn the Wim Hof Method, which is based on the principle that our bodies have the ability to adapt to extreme temperatures and survive within our natural environment (wimhofmethod.com, 2020). Known as The Iceman, Wim Hof holds 21 Guinness World Records and has completed numerous extreme weather feats, including running a half marathon in the Arctic circle wearing only shorts and no shoes, climbing the highest mountain in the world wearing only shorts, and running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking any fluids (wimhofmethod.com, 2020).

Hof’s theory states that by purposefully putting the body in a temporary state of stress through controlled hyperventilated breathing and cold exposure, it is possible to build a psychological and physiological resistance to stressful situations. In the episode, goop staff run through a variety of breathing exercises and perform yoga in the snow (in their bikinis, of course) before the ultimate challenge — jumping into a frozen Lake Tahoe and swimming back to shore. But is Hof’s method legit? Hof states in the episode that “I show through evidence-based studies that our autonomic nerve system can be influenced just by the mind,” to which Paltrow responds that the technique is “the living example of mind over matter” (Paltrow et al., 2020). The episode shows clips of Hof working with scientists in a lab to test his techniques, using these images as ethos to lend authority to his claims. Additionally, Hof’s statement relies on logos to convince the audience that this method could work (how can you argue with “evidence-based studies”?), while Paltrow’s statement plays, once again, on her pathos, convincing us that yes, we can do anything we put our minds to.

While six goop staffers made the trip to Lake Tahoe, the episode places more focus on Kate Wolfson, goop’s executive editor, who suffers from very high levels of anxiety and a panic disorder. Additionally, Sara Rodich, a research scientist who holds a Master’s in Science says she read some of the studies that Hof was involved in (hello, ethos!), was interested to find that the method is “not just a placebo effect,” and wanted to see for herself if the method works (Paltrow et al., 2020).

After watching the episode, I did some added research on Hof (as I did with Haden after the first episode). His website does discuss actual studies performed by universities and medical institutions around the globe, examining if his methods work. This adds to Paltrow’s and Hof’s ethos about the method, but possibly only if viewers do independent research like I did. Wolfson was the last to jump in the lake, and her anxiety about doing so is prominently displayed. Watching her conquer the fear after training in Hof’s method for two days can be inspiring for viewers, and her quote after being asked by Paltrow what it felt like relies heavily on pathos: “It’s exactly like you think it would feel like. And then you actually do it, and you live through it and you survive it, and you feel really, really good after” (Paltrow et al. 2020). Later, Wolfson adds that it was a real changing point in her life, and that she has not had a panic attack since that experience. Watching someone conquer their fears and anxiety, and to hear that they have reduced their anxiety medication because of this experience could be very encouraging for viewers who may find themselves in similar situations, thus using a high degree of pathos to prove the Wim Hof Method works.

Episode three, “The pleasure is ours,” uses a very different rhetorical method to share information about topics that are uncomfortable for many women to talk about: sex, sexuality, and orgasms. Featuring Betty Dodson, who has a PhD in sexology from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, the episode has a primary focus on one goop staffer, Lexi Zhu, who desires to have a better sex life with her partner. The most interesting part of the episode is what is not said; the spaces between the dialogue is equally as important as the dialogue, particularly during an eye-gazing exercise that the staffers take part in. The scene is emotional, and you can feel the awkwardness that the goop staff are feeling. It is a strong rhetorical method, relying heavily on pathos, because it mirrors the uncomfortable feelings and embarrassment that many women feel when talking about sex and pleasure.

“The Energy Experience,” the fifth episode of The goop Lab, examines the practice of working with a person’s energy field to heal. John Amaral, a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) and “body worker” explains that the human body has an energy field through which we process the world. The more connected you are through that energy field, the healthier you will feel (Paltrow et al., 2020). As you watch the episode, you see three goop staffers and professional dancer Julianne Hough lying on massage tables while Amaral moves his hands over their bodies, not touching them, to manipulate their individual energy fields. The subjects are arching their backs, twitching and groaning in what I would imagine an exorcism would look like. They are very powerful images, until the second doctor of the episode, physician and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Apostolos Lekkos, reminds viewers that just because energy medicine (magnet therapy, laser therapy, vibrational therapy, and so on) is not proven, does not mean it does not work (Paltrow et al., 2020). This is like the definition of pseudoscience explored earlier, which does not use rigorous peer review to prove the truth and integrity of science research (Daempfle, 2013). How could Paltrow and her team convince us that this method of healing really works? Bring in the employee who is the self-proclaimed skeptic Brian James. James points out that “the scientist in me wants to do some research, ask some questions, and come up with a hypothesis,” then run some more tests to see if he notices anything different (Paltrow et al., 2020). In the closing scene, he admits that he does feel better after working with Amaral. The decision to use James in this episode shows a strong use of logos — if the skeptical science guy feels better, then it must work!

Is The goop Lab just basic marketing?

We have established that Paltrow uses her name to sell $90 plain white t-shirts and extreme juice cleanses. Perhaps The goop Lab has also resulted in increased sales for the professionals profiled, such as Hof, Dodson and Amaral. Does what Paltrow do with her name and her brand just boil down to marketing?

In her 1997 article “Persuasive communication: Marketing health promotion,” Carol Stubblefield provides several techniques used in health marketing that we can apply to The goop Lab. As she explains:

In the persuasive communication model, the health educator’s intent is to create in the patient an emotional climate favorable to the acceptance of suggested health-related lifestyle change. The patient accepts the need for health behavior change on the basis of the emotional climate rather than on personal awareness. (p. 174)

The footage, language and experiences used in The goop Lab do a really great job of creating a strong emotional climate for the viewer. We watch goop staffers shed tears as they claim their lives have changed after learning how to jump into cold water, or have improved their sexual relationships with their partners. Part of you wants to be that person, to feel that emotion for yourself. In particular, Stubblefield’s description of the “message-learning approach” to health promotion is a perfect fit for The goop Lab: persuasive strategies encourage viewers to reexamine their beliefs and attitudes, and to consider adopting new attitudes (p. 174). Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, the rhetorical methods used in the program force us to question our beliefs about our own health and wellness, and the way we receive treatments.

Stubblefield’s example of messages that arouse fear plays on the idea that avoiding misfortune can be rewarding. These types of messages can cause health behavior change in two ways: 1) if you do not follow the doctor’s recommendation, you will suffer negative consequences, and 2) adopting the recommendation will eliminate the negative consequences (p. 175). This type of messaging causes the receiver to feel vulnerable and increases the need to act quickly. Allowing staffers to share their vulnerabilities and to demonstrate the changes that the various exercises have made in their lives can be seen as a type of fear messaging: if you do not try this, you will never be as happy and successful as Gwyneth Paltrow or the people who work for her.

The third message type described by Stubblefield is the use of vivid information, such as first-person accounts of an experience or a case study, which may be more persuasive than supplying basic information (p. 175). This method is used throughout The goop Lab: The use of case studies in each episode from non-goop staffers makes us believe that these techniques can help even regular people, just like ourselves. It plays into our emotions and gives us hope for ourselves and our future.

Be critical

Gwyneth Paltrow is not going away anytime soon. She has millions of followers and subscribers from around the globe who will eagerly follow her health and wellness advice, despite any potential lack of scientific evidence supporting the tools, techniques and exercises that she supports or claims to use herself. As Caulfield points out in a 2017 article for NBC News,

Rather than positioning themselves as anti-science, Paltrow and her peers frame themselves as proponents of “wellness,” a vague if benign-sounding term that almost always involves the embrace of concepts like “holistic” … and “natural.” In scientific circles, these concepts are generally viewed as near meaningless marketing slogans. But in a world of wellness, they are typically paired with a largely uncritical acceptance of alternative therapies, often with a dash of spirituality and a large serving of fear mongering.” (n.p.)

After watching The goop Lab, it is very clear to the educated viewer that it is simply a six episode marketing campaign. But to the untrained viewer, the rhetorical methods used by Paltrow and her producers can make the techniques and ideas used within the program seem groundbreaking and potential lifesavers. The show makes strong emotional appeals throughout, as well as a heavy use of logos by presenting goop staff as skeptics-turned-believers in the methods they took part in. By associating herself with people who have PhDs and licensed medical practitioners, Paltrow herself can be seen as an expert on the various topics she covers on her show, in her newsletter, and on her website. This is not to say that we should not accept the potential benefits of the wellness culture, but that viewers and readers need to use a critical eye and ear to go beyond the rhetoric that is used throughout the culture to truly understand the science and validity behind health and wellness promises and practices.

References

“About MAPS Canada.” (2020). Retrieved from https://mapscanada.org/about/.

Caulfield, T. (2017). Wellness brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP wage war on science. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/wellnes-brands-gwyneth-paltrow-s-goop-wage-war-science-ncna801436.

Caulfield, T. (2020). Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Goop Lab in an infomercial for her pseudoscience business. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/gwyneth-paltrows-new-goop-lab-is-an-infomercial-for-her-pseudoscience-business-129674.

Daempfle, P.A. (2013). Good science, bad science, pseudoscience, and just plain bunk: How to tell the difference. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Dawes, G.W. (2018). Identifying Pseudoscience: A Social Process Criterion. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 49. 283–298.

Derkatch, C. (2016). Bounding biomedicine: Evidence and rhetoric in the new science of alternative medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McFarling, U.L. (2016). Tempted to follow that celebrity health trend? Check with this guy first. STAT. Retrieved from https://www.statnews.com/2016/04/20/tim-caulfield-celebrity-health-advice/.

Ng, J.Y., Boon, H.S., Thompson, A.K., & Whitehead, C.R. (2016). Making sense of “alternative”, “complementary”, “unconventional” and “integrative” medicine: exploring the terms and meanings through a textual analysis. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 16(132). DOI: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/10.1186/s12906-016-1111-3.

Paltrow, G., Fried, A., Lillegard, D., Loehnen, E., & Minoprio, S. (Producers). (2020). The goop Lab [Netflix series]. Los Gatos, California: Netflix.

Park, R. (2000). Voodoo science: The road from foolishness to fraud. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pasquarelli, A. (2017). Q&A: Gwyneth Paltrow; The actress and entrepreneur gives us the scoop on Goop and what it’s like to a ‘complete neophyte’ in advertising. AdAge, 88 (19).

Stubblefield, C. (1997). Persuasive communication: Marketing health promotion. Nursing Outlook, 45(4). 173–177.

“What’s goop?” (2020). Retrieved from https://goop.com/whats-goop/.

“What is the Wim Hof Method?” (2020). Retrieved from https://www.wimhofmethod.com/practice-the-method.

Originally written for GPRL 6103: Persuasion in Health, part of Master’s of Public Relations program at Mount Saint Vincent University; April 1, 2020.

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Ali Abel

Ali Abel

Co-owner, EH1 Design Company. Writing, research, editing and communications strategy. Certified Communications Professional.