How bad is it that celebrities tell us to drink soda? And why is Beyoncé taking all the heat?
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter recently announced that she would be part of the $50 million Pepsi ad campaign that includes performing at the 2013 Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show on February 3. Mark Bittman wrote about her as the peg in his New York Times piece this past weekend, "Why Do Stars Think It's Okay to Sell Soda?" He said:
Beyoncé Knowles would presumably refuse to take part in an ad campaign that showed her carrying a semiautomatic rifle. But she's eager, evidently, to have the Pepsi logo painted on her lips.
It was also Bittman who, in the Times in 2010, asked, "Is soda the new tobacco?"
In the process of calling this "an odd move for a politically aware woman," he also notes that other celebrities who've endorsed soda include Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Madonna, Elton John, Janet Jackson, David Beckham, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford, Bill Cosby, and Elvis. We could add, among U.S. endorsers alone, Julius Irving, Nicki Minaj, Jeff Gordon, Pink, Aretha Franklin, Ty Burrell, 50 Cent, Courtney Cox, Penelope Cruz, Tim Duncan, Missy Elliott, Roger Clements, Bruce Jenner, Jennifer Lopez, Ja Rule, Salma Hayek, Jack White, Cal Ripken, Katarina Witt, Bill Gates, Santa Claus, and various anonymous amalgams of U.S. military. Michael Jackson even let Pepsi rewrite the lyrics to "Billie Jean" in 1984, which, if there is an upper limit to the definition of selling out, is a few notches beyond that.
Monroe seems like she might not have been entirely clearheaded during her Coke commercial, so she may be excused:
Soda is already entrenched in nostalgic American kitsch, and that's Coke's angle, especially. While the celebrities who predate the obesity epidemic and 128-ounce Big Gulps can't be held to the same standard as people taking new endorsement deals in the Age of Soda Consciousness, their historic involvement lends credence to the practice. So many trusted, respected celebrities have done these deals; it would take a lot of cultural unwinding to change the notion that it's an acceptable career move. At this point, if Beyoncé backed out, someone else will take this gig in a heartbeat.
It's also the Super Bowl halftime show. 114 million people watched it last year. Is she so wrong to do it, and why are Bittman (and many others) calling her out right now?
Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, issued an open letter to Beyoncé in December asking her not to do the campaign. He cited some compelling statistics and appealed to racial and gender solidarity:
Dear Ms. Knowles-Carter:
I read with disappointment the news of your $50-million endorsement deal with PepsiCo. I urge you to reconsider your decision for the sake of your fans' and general public's health.
Consumption of Pepsi and other sugary drinks is helping fuel an epidemic of obesity and obesity-related diseases that are debilitating ... More than any other category of food or beverage, sugary drinks are associated with increased risk of weight gain and obesity, which increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
... Each additional sugary drink consumed per day increases the likelihood of a child becoming obese by 60 percent. Each soda consumed per day increases the risk of heart disease in men by 19 percent. Drinking one or two sugary drinks per day increases one's risk for type 2 diabetes by 25 percent. ... Almost all obesity-related health problems have a disproportionate impact on low-income, African-American, and Hispanic communities. It's worth noting that 29 percent of black adolescents (about twice the percentage of whites and Mexican Americans) are obese, and 80 percent of African American women are overweight or obese. ...
Is it because of the time in nutritional history -- amid the epidemic and the NYC Soda Ban -- and Beyoncé just happens to be the spotlight celebrity who's signing a new soda endorsement deal? Or is it especially relevant that she is representative of the demographic most affected by soda consumption, and inferred to be more of a role model to people who identify with her race and/or gender?
To public health advocates who see it that way, it could be kind of the perfect storm of a time for her to publicly say that she couldn't in good conscience endorse Pepsi.
Beyoncé has done good work with Michelle Obama's Let's Move youth fitness campaign. We do know she's smart and socially conscious. But she could turn around and donate every dollar she earns from Pepsi over to Let's Move, and it wouldn't be as effective as publicly refusing to glamorize soda.
Either way, as media continues to polarize soda talk as a battle of good and evil, let's not go so far as to compare it to semi-automatic rifles (as Bittman implied). Soda has its place -- somewhere next to cupcakes and cotton candy and apple pie. We're just, as a country, abusing soda right now. No one thinks it's normal to eat a vat of cotton candy every day, and if Beyonce were pushing a shopping cart full of deep-fried Twinkies, it would give us pause. Too many people do still think it's normal to have a few sodas every day, or 64 ounces at a time. In the face of the obesity/diabetes statistics of the sort Jacobson referenced, a careful and conscientious approach to the way we market and glamorize it is worth advocating.
Ideally, eventually, soda can be a cool part of our culture again; like it was when Marilyn was endorsing it, in the ways nostalgic marketing campaigns want us still to see it. We'll have an eight ounce can occasionally (and a smile!), and celebrities can endorse it with a clear conscience. For now, though, they'll find that increasingly difficult.