Life’s Better Without Wings: Red Bull and the Allure of Advertising
It is difficult to imagine walking into a convenience store, gas station shop, or other such establishment without being almost immediately confronted by a refrigerator case full of the aluminum cans and colorful tabs of the many different brands of “energy drinks.” These drinks, with such brand names as Monster and Rock Star, purport to give a jolt of energy to the system, presumably allowing one to have “monster” levels of energy or act like a “rock star” no matter how tired they were moments earlier. One of the earliest entrants in this market of energy drinks, and indeed the brand credited as starting the entire “energy drink” industry, is Red Bull, a product and company that has had enormous and still-growing success over the past two decades. With such strong popularity, it is hard to believe that people have almost no idea how bad Red Bull and other such drinks can be for your health. Numerous reports have found that Red Bull can cause a multitude of serious health risks, both immediately after imbibing the drink and over the long-term, yet the marketing for the beverage still seems to imply that the drink is actually beneficial to health and physical performance. Even a basic examination of current evidence makes it clear that Red Bull should be avoided as a health risk, and that its marketing should be curtailed so as not to falsely or misleadingly promote the sale of what is essentially a toxic substance.
Back in 2003, as part of her coursework at the Harvard Law School, Jenny L. Grus conducted extensive research and prepared a report on the need for federal regulation of Red Bull, not only in term of the product itself but also — and especially — when it comes to the marketing of the product. With not-insignificant health risks already associated with the product at this point, Grus found compelling medical and legal precedents that warranted a control on the placement of warning messages on Red Bull packaging and beverage cans by the FDA, as well as tighter regulations of overall marketing schemes and specific advertising claims, whether meant to be fictional or not. For example, “Red Bull gives you wings” is obviously not meant to be taken literally and in many television commercials and other advertisements is applied to quite obviously fictional and unrealistic scenarios, but the implications of this slogan in context and of other advertising the company engages in is suggestive or improved physical performance and health, which is something other beverage products can legitimately attest to but that has not been at all verified or assessed by the FDA for Red Bull or other energy drinks (Grus, p. 24; 29-30; 57-60). Not only are the implied health claims made by Red Bull unverified, but there is substantial evidence that they are false and that in fact health risks are increased and real physical performance decreased by these drinks (Grus, p. 44). Based on medical expedience as well as legal precedent, then, consumers need to be made aware of the risks of these drinks and the false nature of any perceived health benefits in order to make a fair and informed decision.
In the time since Grus produced and published her research, ongoing research into both the health risks and the supposed health benefits of the drink have been extensively tested and the case against the drinking of the beverage and for controlling its marketing has been made all the clearer. It must be acknowledged that certain performance improvements have indeed been noted in various clinical trials when comparing those who ingested Red Bull to those who did not, however a close examination of these studies and their results reveals that there are still issues with making such claims (Rowley). Taurine is the ingredient in Red Bull that sets it apart from many other non-“energy drink” beverages; it is only in the taurine, caffeine, and sugar content of the drink that any benefits in energy or alertness might be found, and there have long been many beverages on the market with high sugar and/or caffeine contents. One trial showed that athletes who consumed Red Bull forty minutes prior to exercising on a treadmill experienced a twenty-one percent increase in stroke volume, which measures how much blood oxygen is moved by each heartbeat and thus how quickly muscle cells can be replenished and continue operating, when compared to control groups, even when control groups had been given a high level of caffeine (Rowley, pars. 5-6). These effects cannot be chalked up to the sugar content and so are most likely attributable to the taurine, however the alertness benefit is almost certainly solely a result of caffeine consumption and other claims made by the company, such as that it is a detoxifier or useful as a sports drink, are completely unfounded (Rowley, par. 8; 11-13). Even the benefits of taurine, as other research shows, pale in comparison to the risks that the drink and even this substance itself might present to Red Bull drinkers.
A medical study from several years ago found that within an hour of drinking a single can — one suggested serving — of Red Bull, study participants’ blood had become “stickier” and more prone to clotting, which substantially increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular problems even in young and otherwise healthy people (Macrae, pars. 2-5). For individuals already at an increased risk for any such problems, such as many older individuals, smokers, and others the risk of that Red Bull presents can be especially severe, and in fact the drink is already banned entirely in several countries due to the health risks associated with it (Macrae). Though it is still unclear exactly why these effects are occurring at the chemical level, there is a great deal of evidence to support the conclusion that the combination of taurine and caffeine has a fairly immediate effect on blood chemistry and heart function, as even the sugar-free version of the Red Bull beverage produced these effects, and for students and others that drink as many as eight cans a day the health effects could be truly disastrous as levels of both substances build up (Macrae). With clear medical recommendations against the consumption of Red Bull for those with any predisposition towards cardiovascular problems, and with dangers evident even for otherwise healthy individuals, it is close to criminal that the company is not required to place extensive and explicit warnings on their packaging. Worse still is that the advertisements produced by Red Bull, at least in the United States, are still allowed to tout or at the very least imply the health benefits of a product that is actually incredibly dangerous.
Instead of this increased medical and scientific evidence regarding Red Bull’s dangers and relative lack of positive impact on performance leading to advertising changes that present the product in a more honest light, or that at least carry appropriate caveats and warnings, Red Bull’s advertising rhetoric and overall aggressiveness has only increased in recent years. A Red Bull Magazine supplement was recently included n several major newspapers, with articles about sports stars and musicians that are somehow associated with the brand, or are at least implicitly associated with the brand through their inclusion in the magazine (Bloomberg, par. 3). This means that the same type of misleading marketing is being conducted by the company on an even larger and more subversive scale even as evidence about the harmful nature of the product continues to mount. By associating itself with rock stars and athletes, Red Bull is clearly implying that it is through drinking Red Bull that these celebrities are able to put the needed energy into their respective endeavors that allows them to succeed at such high levels. This is tantamount to making claims about improved performance and skill deriving from the drinking of Red Bull, in a manner that is far different from the celebrity endorsement of other products that do not make other explicit claims regarding energy and performance. As it is now known that Red Bull does not produce any significant benefits to performance and that in fact it can cause serious health consequences in the immediate and the short — term, this type of marketing should be strictly limited if not eliminated, and warnings should be included in all advertisements of the beverage.
It has long been an accepted and desired feature of the FDA’s authority to regulate the safety and the health claims of food and beverage products, so that consumers are able to make fair and informed choices regarding what they put in their bodies. There is a great deal of medical and legal precedent supporting the control of Red Bull marketing that would encourage many to stay away from the product, both by making it clear that there are few if any real performance benefits and that there are definitely significant health risks associated with the beverage. While Red Bull’s marketing continues to grow more aggressive, wouldn’t it be wise to ensure that their marketing message is balanced with medical evidence?
Bloomberg. Red Bull’s Adrenaline Marketing Mastermind Pushes into Media. 19 May 2012. Accessed 7 March 2012. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-19/red-bull-s-adrenaline-marketing-billionaire-mastermind.html
Grus, Jenny. Giving You Wings: Should the Food and Drug Administration Investigate the Safety of Red Bull and So-Called Energy Drinks? Harvard Law School. May 2003. Accessed 7 March 2012. http://leda.law.harvard.edu/leda/data/553/Grus.html
Macrae, Fiona. Red Bull gives you…. increased risk of heart disease, say scientists. Accessed 7 March 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1045195/Red-Bull-gives-increased-risk-heart-disease-say-scientists.html#ixzz1oTEPGt4j
Rowely, Brian. No bull: canned energy: men’s fitness takes Red Bull to the lab and discovers the heat behind the hype. Mail Online. 15 August 2008. Accessed 7 March 2012. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1608/is_9_17/ai_80309795/
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