An interview with the authorsPublished May 2013
An Open Letter to LeBron James
Drop your endorsements with Coca-Cola and McDonald's
By Abdul El-Sayed
Published December 10, 2012
Fresh off an extraordinary year leading the Miami Heat to an NBA title and the U.S. Men’s Basketball team to a gold medal in London, you should be a role model for what good health and regular exercise can do.
But instead, you’re doing the opposite by representing Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
Seventeen percent of American kids are obese, and up to 1 in every 4 are overweight. The prevalence of obesity in American children has more than tripled since 1980.
According to many public health experts, childhood obesity is the most serious health issue facing our country right now—bigger than smoking, HIV/AIDS, and breast cancer. Why? We really don’t know what to do about it.
But we do know that advertising unhealthy foods to children is a big part of the problem. A study in the journal Obesity Reviews showed a clear link between watching advertisements for unhealthy foods and the number of snacks children ate on a daily basis. Another study in the European Journal of Public Health tells us that eliminating unhealthy food advertising to children could reduce obesity by up to 18 percent.
LeBron, your agreement to advertise Sprite for the Coca-Cola Company is worth $16 million over six years. Let’s do a little math to estimate how much sugar you’ll sell to our kids over that period.
Assuming that Coca-Cola breaks even on the deal (which is at least what it will do), then you should make the company back at least $16 million over six years. Coca-Cola makes about 21 cents on the dollar over all the products it sells, and a 20-ounce Sprite costs $1.39 on average. If Coca-Cola makes the same profit on 20-ounce Sprites, that means that you’ll have sold at least the equivalent of 54.4 million 20-ounce Sprites over the course of your six-year contract. Now, each one of those 20-ounce Sprites has 16 spoons of sugar in it, so LeBron, you’re responsible for selling over a billion spoons of sugar. Not to mention all of the McDonald’s grease you’re selling.
Beyond the billion spoons of sugar and the millions of Big Macs you’ll sell, perhaps the worst impact of your endorsements is the confusion it creates in kids’ minds.
Children see you accomplish extraordinary athletic feats on the basketball court night in and night out. At the same time, though, they see you supporting products their parents and doctors tell them are unhealthy. As young, impressionable children, that creates confusion about what is and is not healthy for them. After all, kids must think, how can Sprite and McDonald’s be unhealthy if LeBron James, the pinnacle of sports, is telling me to buy them?
And it’s not even like you need the extra dough you’re earning making American kids doughier. Last I checked, your estimated net worth was $110 million. Last year you earned $13 million through your contract with the Heat alone, not to mention your $90 million Nike deal.
You and I graduated high school in the same year. Since then, I’ve been a student trying to learn enough to make a difference in public health and medicine. You’ve been an international megastar athlete, garnering fame and fortune playing your favorite sport. It’s humbling to think that at 27, you could make more of a difference in public health by dropping these endorsements than I will in my whole career.
In the end, whether you like it or not, you are a role model in our society. Kids look up to you—many want to be just like you. While it may be unfair to expect that you weigh in on all of society’s problems, you do have particular weight when it comes to this one, which you represent—whether you like it or not—as an athlete. Don’t allow yourself to be used as a tool to confuse the messaging about what is and is not healthy for our kids.
LeBron, if you’re reading this, I know you know how to step it up and lead: I watched you do it in the finals against OKC, and I watched you do it again this summer in London. This is your opportunity to step it up in a bigger way. Be the leader we know you can be, and take a stand against endorsements for companies that are making our kids obese.
Just like on the court, if you lead, others will follow.
Edited by Elaine Meyer and Jordan Lite
Correction: A previous version of this commentary listed LeBron James’s salary with the Miami Heat last season at $53 million. It was $13 million.