Seeing Red Over Broken Wings

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A pink cartoon bull sporting a T-shirt and a wide, toothy smile greets you at Red Bull's Web site. The highly caffeinated, supplement-enriched "energy drink" vendor's site includes graphics of motorcycles blazing down the street and snowboarders speeding down a mountain. The images scream cool, sporty--and most clearly--young. Today, energy beverages represent a $3.5 million industry that is continuing to grow at a fervent pace (up 75 percent since 2005). With high revenues coming in, it would follow that marketers look to every channel of expansion. The development of enterprise marketing software has made it easier for companies to direct their targeted efforts more accurately. But has the increase in marketing effectiveness paved the way for a decrease in corporate responsibility? Now regularly appearing in lunch boxes and littering middle school soccer fields, Red Bull's six-inch-tall blue cans have sparked a debate over this and other such energy drinks' adverse health and well-being effects. Health experts are reviewing the potential consequences of these products on adults, but marketers continue to target an increasingly younger demographic with the drinks. Most noticeably, AdvoCare, manufacturer of the energy drink SPARK, last fall rolled out KickStart SPARK, a spinoff of the adult version aimed at children four and over. It contains 60 mg of caffeine (about half a cup of coffee) as well as 200 mg of taurine and 100 mg of gamma-aminobutyric acid, both nonregulated supplements. There are no hard and fast answers yet as to how good or bad energy drinks are for children. Many experts remain split on the consequences of the products' long-term consumption. In the United States the National Institute of Mental Health has issued the statement saying, in part, "overall, the effects of caffeine in children seem to be modest and typically innocuous." An investigation conducted by the Food Safety Board of Ireland--following the death of an 18-year-old boy who had consumed three cans of Red Bull before a basketball tournament--recommended that stimulant drinks should be discouraged for children 16 and under. The beverage has been banned in Denmark, France, and Sweden. Kimberly Collins, research vice president at Gartner, asserts that no matter the "typical" effect, it is in companies' best interest to make sure that their products are safe for all customers. "What if a kid with a heart problem has a drink and it causes damage?" she asks. "One incident like that can absolutely damage you beyond repair in the marketplace." Collins says that firms must announce all available product information so that customers can make informed buying decisions. Stating that your product "enhances mental energy" and "keeps your child healthy" (as it does on the Web site for KickStart SPARK), or recommending (as Red Bull does) that it be consumed "prior to demanding athletic activities or before tests and exams," enters dubious territory: The beverage could be detrimental to one's health. Neither site lists any possible side effects of the beverage nor posts any warning about the beverages' use by youngsters. Collins sees similarities to youth-targeted nicotine ads from the past. "I don't want to say energy drinks are cigarettes, but there is an analogy here." Companies will continue to be driven by the bottom line. "The reality is that consumers are in the driver's seat and vote with their wallets," says Leslie Ament, director of research at Aberdeen Group. "If consumers buy only from socially responsible companies, companies will try to become more socially responsible." But if consumers let irresponsible marketing slide, the question still remains: Does that make selling possibly dangerous products right? (Round of lawn darts, anyone?)
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