Experts say Perry putting her young fans at greater risk of obesity, diabetes

Health organizations are calling on singer Katy Perry not to market Pepsi. The groups, who are gathered in Los Angeles for a Healthy Beverages Summit, say that the popular singer is putting her young fans at greater risk of obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses by promoting Pepsi in connection with her films and music. Perry recently let Pepsi wage an online election to determine which song the singer would perform at the Video Music Awards.

The health advocates wrote an open letter to Perry, which will be published tomorrow in Variety. (Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter each turned down the ad.) The singer’s latest album, Prism, will also be released tomorrow. The letter says that Katy Perry’s marketing of sugar drinks to her fans is reminiscent of celebrities of an earlier generation who marketed cigarettes to young women.

“Virginia Slims and other tobacco companies used glamorous celebrities and models to position smoking as hip, sexy, and rebellious,” the letter reads. “Today soda companies are using you and other celebrities to convince young people that drinking soda is hip, sexy, and rebellious. That’s certainly the case with Pepsi’s promotions in connection with your concert film and forthcoming album. ‘Drink Pepsi and you can be cool like Katy Perry,’ is the takeaway message for your young fans. ‘Live for now’—and worry about the health consequences later.”

One out of three children is overweight or obese, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which co-convened the Healthy Beverage Summit with the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the California Black Health Network, the California Endowment, the California Pan Ethnic Health Network, and the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. Consuming one additional sugar drink per day raises a child’s risk of becoming obese by 60 percent. Sugary drinks are also linked with increased risk of hypertension and heart disease.

“Despite the pearl-clutching over Miley Cyrus sticking out her tongue and twerking at the Video Music Awards, the real scandal at the VMAs was the elaborate multimedia campaign designed to exploit Katy Perry’s young fans and to link her artistic achievement to sugar water,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Katy Perry’s work for Pepsi threatens to reverse years of progress public health officials have made reducing sugar drink consumption among children.”

Katy Perry’s appeal to young people is indisputable, according to CSPI. In 2011 and 2013, Perry voiced the character of Smurfette in two animated Smurfs films. And in 2013, she won Nickelodeon’s coveted Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Female Singer.

On Twitter, Katy Perry is second only to Justin Bieber. According to social media market research firm Demographics Pro, nearly half of her 43 million followers are under age 16. According to TweetReach, just three Katy Perry Tweets on August 24 reached 38.6 million people—about 19 million of whom would have been under 16—urging them to vote in the Pepsi-sponsored contest. That’s a pretty impressive reach, considering there are only 40 million Americans between the ages of 10 and 19.

“Pepsi might claim not to market to ten- or eleven-year olds, but the company knows that Katy Perry appeals to kids of that age,” said CCPHA executive director Harold Goldstein. “Using her is a very clever and efficient means of implanting Pepsi messages on impressionable young minds, often without parents having a clue what’s going on.”

Other signatories on the open letter include the Berkeley Media Studies Group, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, and the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California.

CSPI has produced a video, The Sell Outs, showing celebrities as diverse as Marilyn Monroe, Bill Gates, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Shakira, and Katy Perry endorsing Coke, Pepsi, or other sugar drinks over the years, and an infographic showing the combined social media clout of celebrities that endorse sugary drinks.