Ready for that Jelly?

Beyoncé’s Pepsi contract and childhood obesity

Published on February 13, 2013 by Abdul El-Sayed

Beyoncé is just about the freshest celebrity around right now. Following her knock-out rendition of the Star-spangled Banner at President Obama’s inauguration last month and her show-stealing Super Bowl half-time performance, her stock couldn’t be higher.

But rather than use her star-power for good, Beyoncé’s chosen instead to use it to sell sugar to kids.

Having recently signed a $50 million contract with Pepsi, Beyoncé is just the most recent in a line of role model celebrities that have chosen to support an industry that we know is contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. After all, nearly 25 percent of American kids are overweight, and more than one in six is obese. That number is three times higher than it was in 1980.

Advertising is a big part of the problem—so when a mega-star like Beyoncé chooses to support a brand like Pepsi, she is directly contributing to the growing number of obese children in the US. And as a country, we’re not ready for that jelly.

What’s so perplexing—and disturbing—is that Beyoncé was once a part of the solution. She was chosen by Michelle Obama as a spokesperson for her “Let’s Move!” campaign, an anti-obesity program to promote healthy eating and physical activity among children. In the program’s promotional video, the singer explains: “It’s all about promoting the benefits of healthy eating and exercise…” She even created a music video for the program, which has been distributed to students at middle schools around the country.

By signing with Pepsi, Beyoncé is sending mixed signals to American kids, which is the worst part. Kids are impressionable—that’s why Beyoncé was enlisted by the First Lady to represent the anti-obesity campaign to begin with, and also why Pepsi signed her to support their product. When they see the same Beyoncé who just told them about the benefits of healthy eating pushing a shopping cart full of Pepsi, what are they to think? I, for one, am certainly confused.

A thought experiment may be illuminating in this regard. Think about this: What if Beyoncé were actually drinking all of the Pepsi the advertisers make it look like she does? I presume she would look quite a bit different, certainly without the svelte, toned physique that has become part of her calling card.

This thought experiment should illustrate just how dangerous Beyoncé’s support for Pepsi actually is—it associates the sugary beverage with the glamour and beauty of a pop-icon while withholding the actual implications of consuming it. It has a remarkably similar feel to advertising campaigns for tobacco decades ago, which sought to associate smoking with desirable images of beauty and sophistication.

Like LeBron James, I kindly request that Beyoncé reconsider her contract with Pepsi.

Along with her husband, Sean “Jay-Z” Carter, Beyoncé’s estimated net worth (before she signed with Pepsi) was $775 million. With nearly a billion in the bank, is another $50 million really worth the indignity of going back on a commitment to children’s health?

What’s more, with the recent birth of her child, as a new mother, Beyoncé should understand the difficult circumstances in which she’s putting parents all over the country as she contributes to their children’s ill-health.

Finally, this is an opportunity for her to extend her tremendous leadership capacity beyond entertainment into something that really matters. By taking a public stand against the beverage industry, Beyoncé’s courage could inspire other stars to do the same—and signal to our kids that the products that Pepsi and others produce are to be rejected, not supported.

Edited by Karestan Koenen. Additional research by Josh Brooks.


Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed is a social epidemiologist and physician-in-training. His research explores how our social realities make us sick. Abdul is also Fellow at Dēmos, a non-partisan public policy center in New York. His commentary engages healthy policy questions in the US and globally, with a particular focus on social inequalities and disease prevention in light of health trends. Follow him at @elabdul.

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Celebrities have enormous power at their disposal. Perhaps, when a celebrity endorses something unhealthy, we need to convert that into a figure they can understand – homicide equivalence?

For example, Jenny McCarthy came out publicly against the MMR vaccine. A significant number of the mothers who didn’t immunise their children may have done so because of this. We know how many people die of these diseases, so if we estimate the effect of the celebrity on the bad health choice (celebrity endorsement being one of many factors), and then multiply that proportion by the number of premature deaths, we get a “homicide equivalence” of their actions.

Of course, estimating how much the endorsement of a celebrity sways people’s decision making is very difficult. However, it is not impossible. Pepsi, for example, has been able to calculate that it is worth paying Beyonce $50 million for her support, so they must have calculated that it would increase Pepsi consumption enough to make significantly more than $50 million extra gross profit on drinks sales. Pepsi’s gross profit margin is 64% or so, meaning their profit makes up 64% of the price wholesalers pay pepsi for a can.

Let’s guess that Pepsi makes 45¢ on every 20oz bottle sold. This gives a minimum of 110, million extra units shifted because of Beyonce’s endorsement. Probably actually over 200 million, assuming that Beyonce’s support is cost effective for Pepsi (they make 64% gross margin on their product, it reasonable to assume that they aim for similar efficiency in their celebrity endorsements. Actually that would give 300 million)

Now, if a person who dies early because of diabetes drinks an average of 40,000 20oz bottles in their lifetime (3/day for 40 years), we can guesstimate that Beyonce is actually causing the premature death of 5000 people. Well, let’s be cautious and say 2,500 people, because she doesn’t endorse the other sources of excessive sugar in the US diet.

So, Beyonce’s endorsement is killing ~2500 people. That’s $20,000/life. Good money if your your conscience will bear it. I wonder how much hit men charge?

Legal bit – all figures approximate – this is a “back of the envelope” calculation and may not be accurate. Beyonce’s lawyers may argue that I’m being unfair, but I say – if Beyonce’s endorsement causes 1 additional death (and there’s no way that they could prove in court that it doesn’t) – that is 1 additional death too many.

If we were to confront celebrities with the deaths they cause, maybe they wouldn’t do it.

    I just thought – Beyonce’s $50 million might also increase the sale of diet pepsi. However, on the basis that the shopping trolley photo doesn’t include any diet pepsi, I’m guessing that’s not Pepsi’s primary goal. Therefore, I think the figures are still in the right ballpark.

    On consideration, there is a flaw in my calculations: I am assuming that:
    1) all the extra Pepsis consumed as a result of Beyonce’s endorsement is consumed by and cause (in 50-50 combination with other bad health choices) the premature death of someone.
    2) All the extra Pepsis drunk are additional consumption of sugary drinks that would not otherwise have been consumed.

    1) is inaccurate because It is _possible_ to consume sugary drinks in moderation, rather than 3 a day, 7 days a week. However, it seems to me that in adulthood, most people either drink sugary Coke and Pepsi a lot, or not at all. There don’t seem to be many “casual partakers”. Obviously, if you drink _a lot_ of sugary Pepsi, you are putting your health at risk. Allowing for this is quite complicated.

    2) is inaccurate because Pepsi is not the only sugary drink out there, and many of the extra sales attributed to Beyonce’s sponsorship could be simply grabbing market share from (for example) Coke. To allow for this factor accurately, you would need accurate figures for the increase in sales of Pepsi due to celebrity endorsement, and evidence for how much of that increase was due to increasing market share, rather than growing the size of the market. These are the sort of figures that Pepsi marketing executives would have at their fingertips when they signed the contract with Beyonce.

    To allow for these factors, I think you have to reduce my earlier “homicide equivalence” figures by at least a factor of 4. We’re still talking hundreds of deaths a year caused by Beyonce, though.

man these articles are annoying. if you are going to criticize her about representing soda why not also criticize her for sexualizing music, having a stereoypical body frame which includes big breasts and huge butt?? is she not a role model in that regard as well? the fact is, if our children are growing up and identifying with people like beyonce and lebron james as role models to base their character values and everyday behaviors on, the problem isn’t with the CELEBRITIES, its with the PARENTS. This article and the open letter to Lebron James = serious lack of substance..

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. Stay tuned for an article on just that topic–the responsibility of parents in the childhood obesity epidemic–next week. Thanks for reading!

    We don’t criticise her for those things because they don’t kill anyone.

Beyone was lip syncing during the Presidential Inaugaration

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