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Red Bull, Rockstar and Now Pimp Juice? Buzz-Infused Energy Drinks are a Window Into Young Men's Fantasies

Why pay $3 for the same buzz that could be brewed for pennies at home? Because of all the virility and vigor promised by exotic-sounding ingredients.
 
 
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Red Bull and Rockstar aren't the only energy drinks. Check out Pimp Juice.

"Pimp Juice, currently only available in the Extra Strength formula, is a healthy, carbonated energy drink possessing a tropical berry flavor," reads its Web site. "Pimp Juice’s artificial coloring gives it a smooth neon green glow, while its 10% apple juice content adds a natural sweetness."

Hip-hop superstar Nelly co-owns the company that makes it. Another hip-hop star, Lil Jon, is affiliated with the energy drink called Crunk!!!

"Hell naw -- the game done changed," reads its site. "Lil Jon got his own drink? With the crunkest of rappers makin’ a come up like this, hip hop artists will soon be wantin’ to have their own ice cream cones and toothpaste flavors. We takin’ ova!"

Energy drinks, along with the words and pictures used to sell them, are windows onto young men's worlds: their real worlds and those mental realms that, based on scientific research, marketers call "desired worlds" -- where young men go, what they buy, what they want. Young men are driving the $6 billion energy-drink industry. Sixty-five percent of energy-drink consumers are males aged 13 to 35. Twenty percent of American males claim to consume energy drinks regularly.

Where do they go? To music venues, such as the Mayhem Festival set to tour the country this summer; its top sponsor is Rockstar, which sponsors other music and sporting events all year, every year, worldwide. After a qualifying finish at the international Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme MX1 World Championship in the Netherlands last month (April), Belgian champion Steve Ramon "hoisted the Rockstar Energy Drink can on the podium," we read at the racing magazine Paddock Talk. This month (May), Australia will witness the 2010 Rockstar Energy Drink MX Nationals. Venom Energy is the "official energy drink" of a Texas football team. Last month (April), fans received $6 off game tickets for every empty Venom can they displayed.

Energy drinks aren't new. Debuting in 1885, Coca-Cola contained coca leaves. But these days, fast, hard, macho sports are part of an energy-drink landscape whose language and scenery are violent, racy, risky and intriguingly gender-specific, where products are named Bawls, Ammo, B52, Enorm, Atomic Blast, Banzai, Death Adder, Damzl Fuel, Sin, Greed, NeuroGasm, Adrenalyn, Xtazy, WhoopAss. The drink called Blood is sold in hospital-style plastic blood bags. It's a landscape populated by hot chicks in bikinis and high heels who finger cans and bottles you-know-how and you-know-where, looking exuberant as liquid spurts.

And what do young men buy? They buy caffeine.

Disguised with skulls, snake eyes and lightning bolts, energy drinks are delivery vessels for caffeine — as much of it in a single can of Blade or Blow as in two and a half cups of coffee. Some brands list caffeine among their ingredients. Some list guarana, a plant common in Brazil whose fruit contains twice the caffeine found in coffee beans. As for what else is in them, read labels and you'll see the same exact ingredients in most: pantothenic acid, milk thistle, ginseng, amino acids such as arginine and taurine.

Like several other brands, Crunk!!! contains an herb commonly known as horny goat weed that is alleged to improve male sexual performance. A timeline on Crunk!!!'s website tells us: "800 BC: Horny Goat Weed Discovered. Oh Lawd. Peep the goats gettin' nasty off the weed. Farmers dub the plant after the outlandish sexual behavior of farm animals."

These non-caffeine ingredients "are just totally irrelevant," says Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs Quackwatch.org. "They're just added to the drinks to make the drinks look like there's more stuff in them. Taking amino acids won't give you energy. Pantothenic acid is a vitamin. It has nothing to do with energy. Milk thistle may have some benefit to the liver, but that's its only scientific application. It's not something people should take for energy." Studies in the West have not yet produced conclusive evidence that ginseng improves athletic and sexual performance, as Chinese medicine has claimed for millennia.

Taurine "supports neurological development and helps regulate the level of water and mineral salts in the blood," notes Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky. "Some studies suggest that taurine supplementation may improve athletic performance, which may explain why taurine is used in many energy drinks. Other studies suggest that taurine and caffeine act together to improve athletic and perhaps even mental performance, although this finding remains controversial. ... Little is known about the effects of heavy or long-term taurine use."

Young men want ... energy. For what? Watching NASCAR and motocross and concerts doesn't take much. What will they do with all this vigor? What will they do for it?

They'll pay $3 for the same buzz that could be brewed for pennies at home. They'll pay because this buzz, the canned or bottled buzz, is called Superfly or Freek and is adorned with images of death or sex. They'll pay because, in many cases, they are children used to buying cold sweet carbonated drinks. They'll pay because this is the ever-loving adolescent dream come true: the legal high. Frappuccino might induce energy, but Frappuccino is so femme. Hot coffee doesn't come in cans called "bullets."

Hot coffee can't be chugged.

The clubbiness in the ad campaigns, the bright pictures of parties and almost-exposed breasts reveals a cynicism even more profound than that of those who sell liquor or cigarettes or crack: At least they don't pretend they're selling something else. "Behind every slam dunk, fast break and awesome assist, you'll find the insanely healthy energy drink that keeps the fans in the game all day long," reads the Web site for Verve! drinks. "In an office, on the job, on a mountain, riding waves, doin’ flips, doin’ tricks, jammin’ all night, crammin’ all night, whatever your life calls for, Rip It is there to fuel you," reads the Rip It site.

 
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