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Critics Slam ‘Empire’-Pepsi Deal as a ‘Public Health Tragedy’

Advocates, long focused on the soda maker, take aim at Fox

Pepsi has a long history with pop music. The soft-drink company’s roster of celebrity endorsers has included Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Britney Spears, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj. So it makes sense that Pepsi has partnered with Fox on a massive integrated-advertising campaign for “Empire,” about a fictional family of hip-hop superstars. In a storyline taking place over three episodes — the second of which airs Wednesday — Jamal, played by Jussie Smollett, makes a Pepsi commercial that will be unveiled in the Dec. 2 midseason finale, then air when the show cuts to commercial break.

As ad integrations go, Pepsi-“Empire” represents a level of narrative sophistication rarely seen. But public health advocates are disturbed to see products that have been linked to diabetes and other ailments suddenly starring alongside TV’s most popular characters.

“It’s integrated into the lives of African-Americans who are being shown on television, and they’re not talking about the heavy burden of obesity, type-2 diabetes and other problems that African-Americans have as a result of these types of diets,” Marion Nestle, author of the book “Soda Politics,” told TheWrap of the Pepsi “Empire” story.

The allure of “Empire” for advertisers is its massive audience, the biggest on broadcast TV for a scripted entertainment show. The most recent episode on Nov. 18 drew a 4.4 Nielsen live-plus-same day rating among adults 18-49 — 16 percent higher than its next closest competitor, CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.”

The “Empire” audience is big, broad and majority African-American. Fox executives have previously acknowledged that the initial marketing campaign for the series, which premiered in January, was designed to over-index with African-Americans. And it’s the African-American community that has been hit hardest in recent years by a surge in type-2 diabetes.

According to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, African-Americans are 1.8 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have diabetes and are 50 times more likely to go blind from diabetes. African-American children, meanwhile, are 4.6 times more likely than white children to consume sodas and other sugary drinks by age 2, and African-Americans in general have a higher consumption rate of sodas than any other ethnic group.

“In the midst of a skyrocketing diabetes epidemic that affects African-Americans as much or more than any other ethnic group, to be advertising Pepsi cola on ‘Empire’ is a public health tragedy,” Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy told TheWrap. “We know that these sugary beverages are a leading contributor to diabetes. This is not the time to be selling liquid sugar on the top rated show on television.”

For Pepsi, “Empire’s” supersized ratings reach presents a unique opportunity at a time when its principal business faces new challenges. (Representatives for Fox and Pepsi declined to comment for this story).

“Soda consumption is going down overall, so it would make business sense for [Pepsi] to really reinforce their product with their core users,” said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, noting that young African-American youth consume more soda than other groups. “The issue with that is that their product is hurting their core users. So it’s probably good for their bottom line, but it’s not good for the black community.

Harsh criticism is nothing new for Pepsi and other soft-drink makers. The industry has in recent years been the target of campaigns in New York and other cities to ban or limit sales of large-volume soda servings because of health risks.

Fox’s sponsorship deal with Pepsi, meanwhile, is lucrative, estimated by the Wall Street Journal to be worth $20 million. That package includes not just the Jamal storyline, but also traditional 30-second spots and additional integrations, such as a stunt planned for Wednesday in which Smollett will take over Pepsi’s Twitter account. It’s a complex and sophisticated campaign, one that entangles Fox and “Empire” with Pepsi’s brand — and exposes them to the soda-maker’s critics.

“Black lives matter,” Goldstein said, “whether Pepsi and Fox think so or not.”