Monster: Turn the Light On

As my children have taught me, the scariest monsters are the ones you can’t see. It doesn’t matter if they’re hiding under the bed, inside the closet, or, as we’ve heard lately, under the pop-top, the unknown is scarier than the known.

And when it comes to scares, it’s certainly been a tough couple of months for Monster Energy, which has seen its share price ride something like the “Scream Machine” while it faces waves of negative publicity and scrutiny from state and federal authorities, lawyers, the media, and a public that is increasingly starting to rethink its relationship with these products.

The situation at the root of the problem is a sad one: the death of Anais Fournier, a 14-year-old who died last winter after drinking two 24 oz. Monster drinks in two days. The family of Ms. Fournier, who had an existing heart valve condition, is suing Monster; as a part of that lawsuit her family’s lawyer released information from the FDA that mentions Monster as being somehow associated with five different deaths since 2009. As readers know, other companies have also reported “extreme adverse effects” to the FDA.

The death of a child is a terrifying thing, and the release of government-compiled fatality reports is also enough to create a sensation. (Other energy drink-related controversies are a little less troubling, like when Red Bull-swigging Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton missed several games in September as a result of something called “ocular keratitis,” a corneal problem that can result from too much caffeine ingestion.)

But it’s the lack of disclosure on both sides that is causing me to have concerns. I actually find as much fault with the FDA and with Kevin Goldberg, the attorney for Fournier’s parents, as I do with Monster here. As tragic as the situation is, as a wrongful death suit, this is going to be a tough case to win: Monster makes it clear that its products are not recommended for people sensitive to caffeine – and Ms. Fournier – or her parents – had to be aware that she fell into that group. Monster doesn’t appear to have broken any kind of regulation. In the case of the other FDA complaints, which Goldberg pried out of the agency via public records requests, there was no context released: the cases could range from caffeine toxicity to someone having a Monster in one hand while they drove off a cliff in the other. Without a little light, the causes are left to the imagination.

Even figures that show a massive increase in the number of caffeine-related emergency room visits over the past decade are hard for me to think about as a crisis of ingredients: there’s little information concerning how many are of the Red Bull and vodka variety versus the straight Red Bull variety, or how many are caused by, say, a couple of boys freaking out after drinking their first caffeinated beverage versus someone who has pushed their habit so far as to bring on ocular keratitis. Again, the numbers raise eyebrows – but underneath the eyebrows, the eyes scan for context, finding little.

But Monster also needs to get its act together before regulators force it to do so, because nothing makes regulators act like a public impression that nothing is being done. The company needs to do something in order to control its own situation, because as long as it operates in the shadows, the shibboleths of consumer fear will gather there as well.

There is no overriding good reason that an energy drink – or any beverage – should keep from disclosing its caffeine content. And by that, I mean all of its caffeine content, whether it’s from chemical analogs found in guarana, yerba mate, or green tea extracts, or the coffee-derived caffeine that they add to the typical Monster mix. This category has matured past the point where mystery about what makes the products work is an effective marketing tool. Holding out only increases controversy and creates negative feedback loops. It was a little less than a year ago that Monster President Mark Hall told us at BevNET Live that if the furor over most Monster ingredients became too great, the company could likely just take them out and move on. Obviously, Monster would never take out caffeine, but it could take away the guessing game consumers play when they look at the label and see a proprietary “energy mix.” Like we care. We prefer to know how much caffeine we’re getting so we can take a proper dose. Just like our calories and carbs.

One of the great strengths of the beverage industry has been its ability to react to consumer needs more quickly than other product types, whether by offering calorie data more prominently, developing better sweeteners for low-calorie products, or helping fuel late-night study sessions with a more agreeable form of caffeine consumption. For energy drinks – and, yes, for Starbucks as well – the consumer deserves to know the strength of the dose.

And that disclosure is becoming even more important as the inquiries start to pile up and the one missing piece for Monster – its caffeine content – becomes the one thing that everyone points to and says isn’t on the can. If they don’t offer up caffeine, they could be offering up a lot more, and for no good reason.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Monster Energy isn’t in need of disinfecting – but it should cast a little light around the room, just to show everyone there isn’t something bad lurking in the shadows.