The Red Bull Scam -- Why Are So Many People Buying Into Its Deceptive 'Energy-Giving' Marketing?

"Red Bull gives you wings," Earth's most popular energy drink by market share promises in its commercials. Well, Icarus had kickass wings. Remember what happened to him? Crash and burn, baby. 

What Red Bull does give you is crazy amounts of caffeine compressed into a tiny can of hope. Conjoined with its various sponsorships of similarly extreme events like Formula One racing, air shows, outdoor action sports and much more, Red Bull's overheating marketing arms have major global reach. It has deeply penetrated popular culture, down to its soccer stadiums and sex-fueled clubs, where the drink is popularly mixed with vodka and other alcohol standbys. In the process, Red Bull has helped create a race of hyperspeeding robots annually swallowing over a billion cans of Red Bull, only to crash and burn shortly afterward. At which point, they drink it again to wake up, and restart their seriously stressed engines. 

"The main ingredient of concern in Red Bull is the caffeine," David Schardt, senior nutritionist for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), explained to AlterNet. "It can interfere with sleep, and people can quickly become dependent on it and suffer withdrawal symptoms like drowsiness, irritability and more if they don't get a regular dose. More than 200mg of caffeine can increase the risk of miscarriage. And young adults who consume both an energy drink and alcohol are more likely to get hurt in accidents than if they just drank alcohol. Probably because they don't realize how impaired they are." 

Ironically, that impairment is central to Red Bull's allure and power. According to the company, its drink is specifically designed for hard-partiers in search of warm oblivion, as well as those suffering from occupational and summary other anxieties.  

"Red Bull has always been and always will be more than just a hot secret for the night owl and the non-stop party-animal," the energy drink's official site trumpets. "It is appreciated by a wide range of people, such as the overworked taxi driver, the stressed manager, the exam-anxious student and the pressured journalist." 

As a professionally pressured journalist, I can attest to the power of caffeine. As can the postmodern hordes that have swelled the reputations and earnings reports of market-moving Wall Street knockouts like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks and so on. Based on the Thai energy drink Krating Daeng and gentrified by Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull's global profile has lately been placed alongside those storied, culturally accepted drug pushers. But our collective reliance on increasing doses of caffeinated fixes like Red Bull and other so-called energy drinks -- mixed with sex, drugs, alcohol and exhaustion -- is turning us into a race of at-all-cost winners that just can't help but lose where it counts most. Our bodies. 

"They're the uppers of the new generation," argued Katherine Tallmadge, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Diet Simple. "People are taking them like speed," she told AlterNet by phone. "But too much caffeine makes you jittery, raises your blood pressure, and there are consequences for your heart. If you're young and you're tired all the time, you should look at that from a medical or nutritiional point of view, and see what you're missing. When we're eating healthy, getting rest and pursuing physical activity, we have all the energy we need." 

But we don't, for a variety of both mundane and controversial reasons. From too much work to too little money to even less motivation, thanks to bought-off political, sports and media complexes that equally push hyperconsumption and hyperactivity, we're spent. Our hyperreal bubbles have popped: Fears of a laughably titled double-dip recession, which is just a depression without terminological balls, are ascendant again, and practically guaranteed in Europe. Real unemployment is well over 10 percent, while its acceptable marketing is targeted at around 9.7 percent. (Don't you feel better already?) America is drowning in oil in the Gulf, and in resource wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

That's just the geopolitical madness. Closer to the heart, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. According to the Center for Disease Control, one out of five teenagers is abusing prescription drugs. In mid-June, the Department of Agriculture released new dietary guidelines that say the same thing it said 30 years ago: Cut down the sugar, salt and saturated fats. We're unplugged from our minds, bodies and environments like never before, and no can of densely caffeinated hope is going to change that. 

"It's the saddest thing in the world," said Tallmadge, "and a sign of how much our society has degraded. We have a lot of violence, both parents are working their fingers to the bone, and it's a very stressful time of economic and environmental crises. We need to make some major changes to our educational and nutritional systems, we need more physical activity, more art and happiness. Rather than being taught how to be workaholics who don't know how to take care of themselves." 

It's those lethal doses of reality that Red Bull and other energy-peddlers would rather ignore. Instead, they throw sponsor cash at high-profile athletes like New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, whose recent accomplishment has been revelations of questionable sponsorships while at USC that eventually cost the university 30 scholarships, two seasons of football bowl games, and negated any victories achieved by the team while Bush was receiving "extra benefits." While oil floods the Gulf, Red Bull engages in fossil foolishness like oil-hungry auto and air races racing and air shows. Red Bull's sponsored NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, who's suffering from cardiovascular trouble, was compelled to enter a press conference on being disallowed to race while drinking a can, to help dispel rumors that the energy drink contributed to his condition. Doctors fielded and deflected the inevitable questions relating Red Bull to Vickers' blood clots. Crash and burn, baby.   

"Caffeine is a very useful drug that helps keep people alert and concentrated when they have not gotten enough sleep," said CSPI's Schardt. "That is its main benefit. But some people consume too much. And consumers probably don't realize that Red Bull's claims" -- to "increase performance, increase concentration and reaction speed, improve vigilance, improve emotional status, stimulate metabolism," according to its site -- "are based on the caffeine, not on something special in the drink. They can get their caffeine more cheaply and with fewer calories in alternatives like coffee, tea or diet cola." 

"I consider energy drinks drugs," concluded Tallmadge. "You can't sell energy. You can't sell feeling good. I try hard to promote healthy, balanced eating and physical activity to increase energy levels. I work with everyone from teens to 80-somethings, and they all tell me that, with very minor changes, their lives improve. It's very simple stuff. People are really missing out when they create needs for these quick fixes."


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