Energy Drinks: An Examination of Brand as a Scientific Story
Monster. Cocaine. Red Bull. Venom. Whoop Ass. Just a few years ago, these names might look like a list of fears. But they aren’t—in fact, those are the names of something that young adults seem obsessed with getting: energy drinks. You can find them at the school bookstore, the drug store, or restaurants you go out to, either to help you stay awake to study or give you energy as you rush from activity to activity. Though energy drinks are not marketed specifically as “health” beverages, their potential dangers have certainly raised many new questions in the health world. Like most consumer products, these drinks are not made primarily to give people energy; they are created and defined through their “brand” to make money. But how does brand work as a scientific story?
Energy drinks seem to focus on their brand to explain the effects of their energy, rather than on the health effects. The marketing of Clif energy bars, for example, focuses on the natural ingredients and the “mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fiber” that makes it “a moderate glycemic food” (and therefore, in their opinion, a healthy one) (1). The packaging even tells the eater how to get the most out of the bar: “eat a Clif Bar 1-2 hours before a workout or race” (1).
But marketing of popular energy drinks does not use the health benefits. Instead, each drink’s individual “brand” is used to sell it. Monster’s website, for example, shows extreme sports; in order to find out about the ingredients and health claims of the drink, a visitor has to navigate to a special section for the product (2) Even then the health claims are “branded:” “tear into a can of the meanest energy supplement on the planet.” Red Bull, the most well known of these drinks, even has a commercial parodying the disparity between energy drink health claims and the brand, suggesting that what the drink does scientifically is irrelevant to the consumer; the brand is what is important (3). In fact, Red Bull’s popularity through marketing is owed not to any claims about the energy or quality thereof that it gives the buyer; instead, it “gives you wings.”
While it is true that in an industry with so many different options, energy drink marketers perhaps cannot be blamed for trying to make their product stand out. But it seems that with more investors jumping into the energy drink business all the time, creators of these products realize the relative ease of making this sale. Consumers do not seem to require the good scientific story being used to sell Clif Bars; the brand is a good enough story for them.
But the brand as a scientific story is a difficult idea to swallow. Perhaps the biggest concern of nutritionists is that the brand allows companies and consumers to ignore the health effects of energy drinks. The caffeine in these drinks—sometimes as high as 280 milligrams per 8.5 ounces, “more than twice the amount in a cup of coffee,” explains a New York Times article—can be extremely harmful to “those with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and certain anxiety disorders, as well as pregnant women” (4). Even those who seem to be healthy can be harmed by energy drinks: two years ago, a teenager was rushed to an emergency room in Berkeley, California, because drinking eight cans of an energy drink had given him “sudden heart arrhythmia” (4). Furthermore, because the combinations of ingredients found in energy drinks (like caffeine, ginseng, and taurine) are relatively recent, the way they interact with each other is not well known (5).
Perhaps stranger than the upshot of a brand-as-story’s ability to ignore health effects is the societal implication of the focus on psychological rather chemical effects. In branding the drinks with “attitudes” that have little or nothing to do with health and energy benefits, marketers are revealing that they know consumers will buy something if the brand says something positive with which they would like to be associated. Associating a drink with humor (as in Red Bull’s case), raciness (as with the drink Cocaine, whose suggestive name speaks for itself), or living on the edge (as Monster’s association with extreme sports does) is not only quicker and easier than explaining what ingredients are in a drink and why they are effective. The marketers know that this patchy story—patchy because it does summarize all the observations, such as the sugar crash that often comes an hour or so after consumption—is sufficient for a culture unwilling to scrutinize what it chooses for itself.
Indeed, it is disconcerting that people of my generation feel that they need these energy drinks so badly. Previous decades have survived without them, so why do we need them now? Most would probably argue that we are under more pressure to succeed than anyone before us, with society’s expectation of us being that we will go beyond expectations, particularly in academics. But as one doctor points out, caffeine “exaggerates the perception of stress and the body’s response to it, and I think it could be contributing to the stress we all experience in daily life” (4). It is possible that these drinks only increase our existing ailments, and maybe part of the energy we get is self-generated in response to the drink’s brand. But more importantly, how can we really expect to go beyond what everyone asks of us if we cannot even tell a good story from a bad one?