Let’s Move: But Not With Shaq and Beyonce

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There is no denying the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign is an historic effort to improve the health of America’s youth with unprecedented collaborations between families, schools, food companies and legislators. But while the message is admirable, the messengers are causing some to take a critical look at the program’s strategies.

One reason for the Let’s Move campaign’s success since 2010 has to do with the fact that its primary spokesperson and cheerleader was none other than First Lady Michelle Obama. Appreciating that even a healthy lifestyle message needs brand recognition, Obama has since brought on some of the country’s biggest celebrities and athletes to support the cause and motivate children to exercise more.

(MORE: Healthy Lifestyle Ads From Big Soda: Hypocritical or Helpful?)

But what happens when these high-profile stars have junk food gigs on the side?

Take Beyoncé, who created the memorable “Move Your Body” music video for the campaign–a child-friendly take on her hit “Get My Bodied,” complete with dancing school children in a lunchroom. At the end of the video, the superstar takes a big bite out of an apple.

Two years later, she’s drinking a Pepsi on the big screen, after signing a reportedly $50 million promotional deal with the beverage company (Beyoncé’s representatives did not respond to requests for an interview). Recently, retired NBA center Shaquille O’Neal joined the First Lady at an elementary school in D.C. where he helped lead kids through aerobic exercises. Although Shaq was officially at the event as a Reebok representative, he was criticized as being hypocritical since he recently launched his line of Soda Shaq Cream Soda drinks, created in collaboration with AriZona Beverages.

Shaq Can

PRNewsFoto / AriZona Beverages

The sodas come in a variety of flavors, and each 23.5 oz can contains 270 calories and 72 grams (or 17 teaspoons) of sugar. That makes the drinks completely at odds with the campaign’s main message — which is to encourage physical activity and healthier diets that push for drinking more water and low-fat milk instead. NFL star Eli Manning has also participated in a Let’s Move! event, and has promoted Double Stuff Oreos and Dunkin Donuts. Soccer great David Beckham made a Let’s Move appearance and starred in Burger King advertisements.

(MORE: Q&A with the White House Chef on Healthy Eating)

“It’s unfortunate, the high number of high-profile entertainers that have supported the campaign do commercials promoting fast food,” says Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has called out Let’s Move! on its celebrity guests multiple times. “The message is completely inconsistent with Let’s Move!. Presumably, some percentage of the population notices that inconsistency and thinks less of the Let’s Move! campaign and the celebrity. Kids are especially influenced by celebrities. They think if they consume their product, a little of that glamour or athletic prowess will rub off on them.”

Sam Kass, the Executive Director of Let’s Move! says the campaign obviously benefits from getting well-known figures to back its message, and it seeks high-profile people precisely for their ability to create attention when they talk about healthy living. “Having celebrities and athletes of great presence really helps us get the message out. They’re cultural icons who have real powerful voices in our communities and particularly for young people—they really respond to messages and their leadership,” says Kass. “We certainly want to harness the power of these voices to help create a healthier country. That is really an important component of what we are doing.”

(MORE: Study: How Soda Companies’ Social Responsibility Campaigns Are Harming Your Health)

But research has shown that kids make emotional and lasting connections to brands through messaging. So what kind of tension does it create for a child to see Shaq breaking a sweat for better health, then seeing his face on a colorful soda can in a 7/11? In addressing the conflict, O’Neal said to the Associated Press, “As parents, everything that we do for our children should be done in moderation. I don’t drink my soda every day.” A good point, but that message of moderation doesn’t appear on any of his soda signage in the stores (Due to a death in O’Neal’s family, O’Neal’s representative said they were unable to respond to a request for comment).

“One reason any campaign wants a popular celebrity spokesperson is because kids are attracted to them no matter what they are doing. Kids look up to them, and they want to be like them. We can’t expect kids to turn off that admiration when the same person is selling sugar. At best, kids might be confused. At worst, they’ll think the messages about soda are the same as the messages about water, and those two beverages aren’t the same,” says Andrew Cheyne, a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, who has studied how advertisements target kids and how they respond.

Supporters of Let’s Move! have applauded Michelle Obama for bringing multiple industry players to the table–even convincing the beverage industry to pull its high-calorie products from school vending machines. Since the initiative began, some of the largest food manufacturers in the U.S. have pledged to cut 1.5 trillion calories from their products by 2015, and the American Beverage Association fulfilled its commitment to put calorie labels on the front of their products. But letting stars with junk food deals promote the campaign in front of kids seems to undo some of this positive progress, if not invalidate it altogether.

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Let’s Move! does not have official spokespeople, but critics say each celebrity affiliated with the campaign should be a role model for the messages it promotes — especially since the target audience is young children. “Ideally the First Lady and Let’s Move! would adopt a policy of using celebrities to get out the message, but ensuring they don’t have the achilles heel of junk food promotion,” says Jacobson.

The campaign clearly doesn’t have control over the choices celebrities make in their outside commitments, although some stars (including Beyoncé) haven’t been featured in more recent promotions.

Jacobson says his staff received a call from Let’s Move! officials informing them that the initiative is aware of the situation, but provided no firm indication that anything would change.

Kass says the campaign is working with industry representatives and celebrities to promote and market healthier products — such as the recently launched Drink-Up initiative to push Americans to drink more water. “We hope that both companies and athletes and celebrities will put their marketing resources and voices behind the healthier products,” says Kass.

The more consistent and unified a celebrity’s behavior is, the stronger that celebrity becomes as a role model, especially to young children. Even if Let’s Move! does not have any official spokespeople, it does have celebrity endorsers, and when those endorsements come along with the baggage of fast food or soda sponsorships, good intentions — and healthy messages — can get muddied.