Selling Soda With Celebrities

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 and have a limited-edition Pepsi can bearing her likeness.

At the Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show, where she  was introduced by 50 of her luckiest and best-gyrating fans who have been selected through a contest.

For this and other efforts, Pepsi is spending $50 million, part of which will support her “creative projects.” And unless she’s donating some or all of that money, this is an odd move for a politically aware woman who, with her husband, Jay-Z, raised money for President Obama and supported Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, meant to encourage children to exercise.

Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in. From saying, as she once did in referring to Let’s Move, that she was “excited to be part of this effort that addresses a public health crisis,” she’s become part of an effort that promotes a public health crisis. I suppose it would be one thing if she needed the money or the exposure but she and Jay-Z are worth around $775 million.

Nor is she alone: a partial list of soda shills has ranged from LeBron James to Madonna to the “frenzy-inducing” One Direction, and on: Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Christina Aguilera and David Beckham. Seemingly, no celebrities turn down endorsement deals for ethical reasons. (The Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin was once rumored to have rejected a six-figure deal with Red Bull, but only because he reportedly didn’t want to pose next to a romantic rival, Reggie Bush.)

Pepsi is the leading but not the only producer of sugar-sweetened beverages to play on celebrity desire for dollars: Coke is right up there; the esteemed Michael Jordan shills for Coke, as have Elton John, Bill Cosby and, back in the day, Elvis.

Nor is direct advertising the only vehicle: product placement has become so ubiquitous that most of us don’t notice. A Pepsi can topped the microphone-shaped trophy received by a recent victor on “X Factor,” Simon Cowell’s follow-up to “American Idol.” My friend Laurie David counted 26 on-air shots of Coke during last season’s “American Idol” finale and an incredible 324 shots of Snapple in a June episode of “America’s Got Talent.” (“There are Snapple cups placed in front of each judge,” she wrote me. “I counted every time I saw a Snapple cup.”)

To those jaded enough to ask “So what?” I’d reply that’s a measure of how successful these kinds of campaigns are. (Would everyone be O.K. with a head shot of me at the top of this column innocently sipping at a can of Pepsi?)

Some will say that soda is food and that there’s no smoking gun as there is with tobacco. But food provides nourishment, and soda doesn’t. In fact it packs calories that provide no satiety and directly cause weight gain, and despite the recent Journal of the American Medical Association meta-analysis questioning the link between obesity and early death, we know there is a link between obesity and diseases like diabetes.

Two things can slow down this machine: anti-tobacco-style legislation and public opinion. Because for the beneficiaries, the current system is working great: every aspect of the media industry that can pull in soda money is happy to take it, and Pepsi will undoubtedly enjoy something like 110 million viewers of the halftime show. (Last year, Madonna drew more viewers than the game itself.) Whether Knowles really believes in Pepsi’s public statement about what it stands for, about its “unique commitment to sustainable growth by investing in a healthier future for people and our planet” (Pepsi’s words, obviously) is impossible to know. (Her publicist did not respond for a request to comment for this piece.) In a statement she gave to the The Times upon the announcement of the deal, Knowles said: “Pepsi embraces creativity and understands that artists evolve. As a businesswoman, this allows me to work with a lifestyle brand with no compromise and without sacrificing my creativity.”

Pepsico/Getty Images The model Cindy Crawford in an award-winning ad produced in 1991.

But an organization that works for healthy food was quick to criticize her: last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged her to abandon the deal, writing in an open letter to the star: “Your image is one of success, health, talent, fitness, and glamour. But by lending your name and image to PepsiCo, you are associating those positive attributes with a product that is quite literally sickening Americans.” (She did not respond.)

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