No more Facebook pictures of 6-year-olds with Rockstar Energy Skateboards. No more Tumblr messages to “pound” a 20 oz. can of Red Bull. No more Monster website references to Nitrous Oxide “whip-its.”
In a Senate committee hearing that could have far-reaching implications for the energy drink business, a group of focused Senators tore into the current and past marketing strategies of energy drink companies, claiming they have targeted vulnerable children as potential consumers.
Arguments on safety aspects of the products remained at loggerheads, the subject of competing studies. During this meeting, held by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, while the science was addressed repeatedly, the overall safety of the products was merely a side issue.
Instead, the focus was on the way energy drink companies reach their audience, and on that point, from the introduction by the committee chairman, Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) to the very end, the Senators were clear – market older.
“We just want… to be clear about the message,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “We just want it to end. We’re saying stop it.”
Senators from the committee — and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who presented a report on marketing practices he helped write with Markey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) — demanded changes in practices that they say clearly indicate that the industry has thrived by targeting children and adolescents, rather than the young adults (18-35 years old) they say are their core consumers. The committee promised more hearings in the future until they are satisfied.
“We’re going to be looking for real results to ensure that lines are being drawn that will be protecting those who are most vulnerable in our population,” Markey said. “I’d be encouraging each of our company witnesses, when it comes to marketing to children and adolescents, to not be relying on semantics but to be focusing on safety.”
Witness statements — delivered by executives from Rockstar, Red Bull and Monster Energy, as well as a panel of four doctors — served largely as a pretext to the Senators’ demands, which included closing energy drink social media sites to children and minors, more extensive warning labels on cans, contractual language for new distributors and vendors that permit sampling and promotion only to consumers who are 16 or older and changes in marketing language to stop encouraging rapid consumption or making the implication that energy drinks improve athletic performance.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Blumenthal said when Rockstar Energy COO Janet Weiner tried to make a comparison between caffeine in a ‘coffeehouse coffee’ and that in an energy drink. He said coffee manufacturers or coffee retailers would never show coffee drinkers on skateboards, adding, “We’ve heard this argument ad nauseam.”
The companies all tried to assert that children under 18 are not considered core consumers – but those were quickly swept aside as Blumenthal showed photos from promotions and company-produced media with 12-year-old athletes sponsored by energy drink companies and younger-looking children dressed up in promotional gear. Protestations that those uniforms and other gear were part of athletic development programs were also met with opposition.
“You’re saying that these 6, 7, 10 and 11 year olds are part of an athletic development program?” Blumenthal mocked, comparing the branded gear and sponsorship to cigarette marketing.
Tobacco companies “had, in effect, a feeder program,” he added, suggesting that if a cigarette company had put a cigarette in the hands of a young athlete, and shown the photo, and then suggested they weren’t marketing cigarettes to children, “they would be laughed out of this building.”
Recognizing that those changes might help them preserve the bulk of an industry that reached more than $8 billion in revenue last year, those companies indicated their willingness to comply, or at least think about complying, with most of the requests – but they also pushed back on some, particularly when it came to those that ran counter to their own beliefs about the safety of their products.
As part of her testimony, Amy Taylor, VP and general manger of Red Bull North America, submitted a letter that indicated the company was already willing to make many concessions on labeling and marketing practices – and also suggesting that the company believed that the entire beverage industry could engage in a discussion of the safety of child and teen consumption of “all sugar- and caffeine-containing beverages.”
While the industry representatives seemed willing to scrub websites and change language, Senate demands hit road blocks in cases where science and marketing directly intersected.
Markey asked whether Red Bull would be willing to put a warning label on its cans indicating that the product was not recommended for children under 18. Taylor said that the company likely would not; a position that was echoed by Weiner and Monster CEO Rodney Sacks as well.
“Red Bull is safe for teens and teen consumption,” Taylor said. “We believe that would send the wrong message, and we think that’s important.”
She added that the Food and Drug Administration was preparing to begin a study on the safety of caffeine. If the FDA drew conclusions different from its current standards on caffeine in beverages, she said, the company would be willing to join other beverage companies in sending a different message.
“I guess you could call it a conditional response,” she said.
The conversation became even more dissonant when Markey echoed a suggestion from food marketing expert Jennifer Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity that the companies cease marketing to fans of extreme sports, an area where all three companies have focused their budgets.
Harris suggested that the companies’ sponsorship indicated to youths that they could improve their athletic performance by consuming energy drinks.
The idea that the companies would divorce their products from those sports because they seemed to appeal to under-aged constituencies went against both the targeting and the issue of whether the drinks were being set up as an alternative to a sports drink, Sacks noted.
Monster’s sponsorship of events like the X-Games is to reach a demographic with an average age in the early 30s, Sacks said.
“There’s simply no relationship between your marketing supporting sports and being encouraged for use while participating in those sports,” he said, adding that “every company supports sports,” including soda and beer companies.