Energy drink companies put on defensive in Senate hearing on kid-targeted marketing

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Energy drink Caffeine

A Senate committee hearing on energy drinks marketing yesterday uncovered some skeletons in the advertising closets of three companies there as witnesses, suggesting some reexamination of practices is in order, one observer said.

“I think some of the discussion about the advertising was potentially troubling,”​ Marc Ullman, an attorney with the firm Ullman, Shapiro & Ullman told FoodNavigator-USA

The goal of the Senate Commerce Committee hearing was to examine to what extent energy drink manufacturers are marketing their products to kids under the age of 12 and to adolescents ages 12-18.  Some of the ads and promotional messages detailed at the hearing put the three energy drink companies testifying—Red Bull, Monster Energy and Rockstar Energy—on the defensive.

Hot button issue for senators

The practice of targeted marketing to children by energy drink manufacturers has long been criticized by the key drivers of the hearing, Senators Ed Markey, D-MA, Richard Blumenthal, D-CT and Dick Durbin, D-IL, who, while not a member of the committee did make a statement at the hearing.  The three have cooperated on the issue of energy drinks and on dietary supplement labeling in the past.

All three companies specifically denied that they market their products to children. It’s an argument that gained little traction with the committee members.

“We are all veterans of the tobacco wars,”​ Markey said.  “Remember when tobacco companies told us, oh, we’re not interested in kids? We knew better. Energy drink companies are giving us the same runaround. They are marketing to children and denying it.”

Manufacturers:  Products are safe

The energy drink manufacturers all emphasized that their products are safe, and have been judged so by numerous safety and regulatory bodies. And they repeatedly referenced the amount of caffeine in coffee, which is readily available to teenage consumers, and made mention of the small contribution energy drink consumption makes to the overall caffeine intake of this age group.

"Monster is, and always has been, committed to ensuring that all of the ingredients in its energy drinks, including caffeine, are safe and in regulatory compliance for their intended use,"​ said Rodney Sacks, Monster Beverage CEO.

“The company does not market monster to children and has never done so. The company has included an advisory statement on every can that monster is not suitable for children,”​ he said.

“Red Bull is sold in 165 countries. Health and regulatory authorities around the world have concluded that Red Bull is safe to consume. We have a long history of cooperation with legislative and regulatory bodies to ensure the safe consumption of our products,”​ said Amy Taylor, vice president of marketing in North America for Red Bull. “(And) 93% of caffeine consumption (for under-18 consumers) comes from sources that are other than energy drinks.”

Kid-targeted marketing

But the company executives had more difficulty in explaining away marketing messages that appeared to promote rapid consumption of the drinks and that appeared to be directly targeted to children.  Markey offered a number of images of children obviously younger than 12 taken from Rockstar’s social media pages.  And the policy by Monster of sponsoring athletes as young as 10 in the case of a motocross racer drew pointed questions from Blumenthal and a fumbling response by Sacks, who attempted to pass the practice off as an “athlete development program”​ and not a marketing effort.

Red Bull came off best in the hearing, as Taylor came in with a pre-emptive strike of sorts. She offered a set of advertising and labeling principles that Red Bull is willing to commit to unilaterally. While not necessarily earth shattering (the question of caffeine content appears to be a mere restatement of Red Bull’s existing formulation practice, for example) it did allow Taylor to set a less defensive tone than her energy drink colleagues on the witness panel.

Taylor said Red Bull was committed to the following:

  • To continue to label its energy drinks as conventional foods rather than dietary supplement
  • To declare the total caffeine content on can labels
  • To not sell drinks that have caffeine content in excess of 80 mg in 8.4 oz. or with more than 110 calories in 8.4 oz.
  • To not encourage or condone the excessive or rapid consumption of its drinks
  • To refrain from saying in marketing messages that more caffeine or a higher concentration of caffeine will have a better or stronger effect
  • To avoid claims with language specifically targeted to those under 18
  • To not buy advertising in outlets where more than 35% of audiences are under the age of 18
  • To not feature child or teen-oriented characters in its advertising and promotional activities
  • To not sell its products in K-through-12 schools or other institutions responsible for this group
  • To not sample in or within the immediate vicinity of such places.

Spotlight to stay focused

As he concluded the hearing, Markey put the industry on notice that the issue is not going away. 

“We are talking about marketing practices here that are clearly aimed at children and adolescents and what we are saying is, stop it,”​ he said. “We are going to be returning to this subject and we are going to be asking you to reexamine your policies concerning kids. I would be encouraging each of our company witnesses not to be relying on semantics but to focus on safety.”

Ullman said the hearing should serve as a wakeup call for energy drink manufacturers that they are operating in a spotlight.

“I don’t want to point fingers at anybody who testified but I think there are some troubling aspects. If I were an energy drink manufacturer I would be concerned about being very careful going forward about how I present my marketing materials,”​ he said.

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1 comment

Red Bull Marketing Insight

Posted by Julie M.,

My daughter is a member of the Wings Team, Red Bull's in-house promotions squad. Wings Teams are located in nearly every major city across the country, and internationally, and can be sighted driving in their specially designed Mini Coopers giving out "wings".. They undergo monthly trainings that reiterate the target audiences of the product, which are 18-22, 23-29, and 30+. The team is NOT permitted during a sampling occasion to supply product to anyone under the age of 16, even with parental consent. So as Red Bull's strategies suggest, the brand is genuinely not interested in marketing to children.

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