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Rajiv Narayan

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Answering Mark Bittman: Why Does Beyoncè Think It's OK to Sell Pepsi?

Posted: 01/28/2013 11:47 am

New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman asked, "Why Do Stars Think It's OK to Sell Soda?" By stars, he means Beyoncé, and by soda, Pepsi. The question refers to the $50 million advertising collaboration inked by the two in early December, despite Bey's status as über role model and champion of childhood obesity prevention efforts. The question is brilliant, but goes unanswered -- a rhetorical question where perhaps we'd do better than to take the answer for granted.

Days after Beyoncé struck the deal with PepsiCo, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sent a letter addressed to her, the CEO of PepsiCo and the NFL Commissioner alerting her to the health risks of soda alongside the far-reach and moralistic burden of her endorsements. Then came Mr. Bittman's piece, which pulls no punches as it compares Beyoncé's deal with PepsiCo to endorsing cigarettes, or somewhat more obliquely, semi-automatic rifles. This was followed by a blog post in The Huffington Post by environmental activist and producer Laurie David calling for Beyoncé to be "disinvited" from the Presidential Inauguration. Ms. David started a "We the People" petition the same day, which the White House eventually took down because the administration claimed no formal control over Inaugural activities.

Bey sang (more or less) at the Inauguration. She's set to headline the Super Bowl XLVII Pepsi Halftime Show on February 3rd. Thirteen days later her autobiographical documentary will air on HBO. So it's tough to make the argument that any criticism has taken the wind out of her sails. Or her sales.

Rather than implore Beyoncé to hang her head in shame and wind up validating the view from outside the bubble that public health advocacy is the stuff of puritans and killjoys, deconstructing the logic of her collaboration with Pepsi would make for a more constructive project. Why does Beyoncé think it's OK to sell Pepsi?

Because Beyoncé is already so known and so wealthy and presumably couldn't be bought out by a company she actually has moral qualms with, let's set aside for a moment the hypothesis that her actions are motivated purely by an economic calculus that ranges from the clinical "opportunity cost" to plain old greed.

First, Bey has a long-running relationship with PepsiCo. Since 2002 she's shot five TV spots for the soda giant. And it's not just Pepsi. In 2004 Destiny's Child signed a tour sponsorship deal with McDonald's, about which Beyonce reportedly said: "I ate McDonald's every day when we were recording." Critics of the most recent Pepsi partnership paint an image of a pure Beyoncé tainted, finally giving in to the big money of Big Food. When you consider the depth of her ties to food and beverage companies, it is her involvement with Let's Move that looks like the exception to the rule. That she continues to work with Pepsi may be more the product of inertia than a reasoned apologetics for the company.

Part of Beyoncé's early success is wrought from the megaphone of these TV spots. At age 22, her breakout commercial played on the chart-success of "Crazy in Love," gelling the foundation of her solo cannon as not only a voice, but a body. The next year "Bootylicious," popularized by the eponymous Destiny's Child single -- ostensibly the descriptor of choice for Bey -- entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Paralleling other endorsements and record deals and movie deals, these early commercials were an integral part of her leap from singer to star. Were it not for Pepsi, we wouldn't even be able to ask why this star thinks it's OK to sell soda. Critiquing the answer to this question entails a prior criticism of the role of soda in creating stars.

A second answer brings to surface the insidious moralisms of weight-loss. In early January the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago released results from their survey of 1,011 adults in late 2012 on their perception of obesity. When asked to assess the obesity epidemic, 64 percent of respondents identified "People don't want to change" as a major reason. On another question, 52 percent agreed that maintaining a healthy weight is "... something individuals should deal with on their own." Still another question showed only 22 percent believed the food industry had a "very large amount of responsibility" for solving the country's obesity problems. The blame for obesity rests with individual failing, not corporate strategy.

The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity situates the moral culpability of obesity in the Protestant Ethic and "just world bias." The former ideology tells us "... hard work and determination lead to success, thus placing high value on self-control and blaming victims for not succeeding." The latter says people get what they deserve.

Beyoncé's view of willpower and self-determination reflects this polling, ideology and bias. Take a quote from her recent GQ profile:

"I worked so hard during my childhood to meet this goal: By the time I was 30 years old, I could do what I want," she says. "I've reached that. I feel very fortunate to be in that position. But I've sacrificed a lot of things, and I've worked harder than probably anyone I know, at least in the music industry. So I just have to remind myself that I deserve it."

Imagine you're Beyoncé, if that's possible. You've grown up in the entertainment industry, and you've been coached since before you could say intelligible things to be a polished performer. While there are people and opportunities afforded to you by virtue of your ties to the industry, you don't see the ecology of privilege you inhabit. But you do see yourself -- hear yourself -- practicing lines and performances and pitches for hours on days and years on end. When you come out of Destiny's Child as one of the most successful solo-breakout artists of all time, you own the success as yours.

When PepsiCo approaches you to be their brand ambassador, you don't see a moral paradox. You see yourself. You've been able to wave off the temptations of calories with hard work. You've been able to burn excessive calories through still more grit. So, too, is your determination possible for others. You promote yourself and the soda, but it's the people who determine whether to drink it.

This is why Bey thinks it's OK to sell Pepsi, and this is where we need discourse. Insofar as she mirrors the popular perception of a Will to Health, Beyoncé also gives us a valuable status update to what a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government labeled the "frame contest" for the nature of obesity. In 2004, the paper argued that we're in the middle of a debate about what kind of problem obesity is, comparing "arguments emphasizing personal responsibility for health and arguments emphasizing the social environment."

That obesity is a problem generated by an environment (let it be known that the individual is a part of the environment too, and so doesn't get off scot-free) is a perspective fundamental to public health, but seemingly waved off by most others. Nine years later, those seeking to prevent and treat obesity are in danger of having the personal responsibility frame settle as the lens through which we view the obesity epidemic. That danger is heightened by attempts to nuke certain parts of the obesogenic environment without building the narrative for why. The work of telling the story of decades of research into obesogenic environments and 500-page Institute of Medicine reports is not done. The work of making common sense the notions that victim-blaming, fat-shaming, and weight-stigma are not solutions isn't done either. They need not be completely done to change popular perceptions held in common by pop stars. But we can start by answering the questions we ask.

 

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