Last month it was reported that the pop megastar Beyoncé signed a $50 million deal with PepsiCo, which involves starring in a TV commercial for Pepsi, performing in the Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show this February and having her face emblazoned on limited-edition Pepsi cans. The news came as a major blow to public health advocates who have been slashing soda as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic, and many have called on Beyoncé to walk away from the deal. But is she morally obligated to do so?
Yes, argues Marion Nestle, NYU nutrition professor and author of “Why Calories Count”: “If Beyoncé’s mission is to inspire young people of color to look gorgeous and rise to the top, as she has done, she is now telling them that the way to get there — and to get rich — is to drink Pepsi. This untrue suggestion is, on its own, unethical.”
In an open letter to the pop performer, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wrote, “Your image is one of success, health, talent, fitness, and glamour. But by lending your name and image to PepsiCo, you are associating your positive attributes with a product that is quite literally sickening Americans.”
Beyoncé isn’t the only celebrity who’s been called out for endorsing unhealthy products. A Columbia University researcher calculated that NBA star LeBron James will be responsible for selling one billion spoonfuls of sugar through his deals with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Kim Kardashian is being sued for backing diet pills that have been banned in Australia for safety reasons. And there’s also the International Olympic Committee, which was criticized last year for signing McDonald’s and Coca-Cola on as Olympic sponsors through 2020.
Let’s try to consider it from Beyoncé’s perspective. With record company budgets on the decline, artists are made to find other ways of financing the production, distribution and promotion of their music. The New York Times described the deal with PepsiCo as a collaborative project that not only involves standard advertising of Pepsi products but also “a multi-million dollar fund to support the singer’s chosen creative projects,” which could include live events, videos and anything else Beyoncé might dream up. Not to say that she wouldn’t be able to afford to finance her own projects, but PepsiCo’s money is certainly nice to have.
But what about Beyoncé’s moral responsibility to her audience and fans? Should she be expected to cut ties with PepsiCo? If the answer is yes, it’s only because she has herself not only acknowledged but also embraced her status as a role model, once telling Entertainment Tonight, “Being a role model is something that I’ve always been… There’s always someone watching you, someone that admires you and I believe we help each other so much and I don’t take being a role model lightly.”
In a tweet earlier this year, First Lady Michelle Obama thanked Beyoncé “for being a role model who kids everywhere can look up to.” That’s including the one-third of American kids who are now overweight or obese. Kids for whom Beyoncé, in fact, made a workout video in collaboration with Let’s Move!, Mrs. Obama’s signature campaign dedicated to battling childhood obesity.
Maybe, like millions of Americans, Beyoncé has bought into the food and beverage industry’s party line that America’s epidemic of obesity and diet-related diseases can be counteracted with just a bit of exercise. Maybe she isn’t aware of the extent to which sugar-sweetened beverages have harmed our health — that they are the single biggest source of calories in the American diet and are directly linked with obesity and diabetes. And it’s okay to give her the benefit of the doubt because it isn’t her business to know these things. So maybe Beyoncé can take a few minutes to watch this video, an animated short with music by Jason Mraz that shows the adverse health consequences suffered by a polar bear family of four from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages just like Pepsi.
Whether Beyoncé has a moral obligation to walk away from the deal with PepsiCo, it’s highly likely that she’ll get more people to drink more Pepsi. Or else the company wouldn’t be allocating this kind of money to the campaign. Starre Vartan points to one Beyoncé fan who wrote, “BEYONCEEEE! yess Bey! DO WORK! i’ll begin drinking Pepsi because of you!”
Photo Credit: oouinouin