999 Words

Red Bull’s Sour Notes

(For Part I of this story, please read this.)

It’s not easy to casually surf for information on the health effects of Red Bull, which contains high doses of caffeine (the devil we know) and a shadowy organic compound called Taurine (the bull we don’t).

A 2010 study published in the journal Amino Acids suggests that Red Bull consumption “ameliorates changes in blood pressure during stressful experiences, and increases the participants’ pain tolerance.”

The American FDA collected records of Red Bull-related health problems voluntarily reported between 2004 and 2012. One patient in particular suffered from panic attacks, anxiety, blurred vision, dizziness, decreased appetite, fatigue, adrenal insufficiency, insomnia, confusion, attention deficiency, self-examination and dependence. These side effects are especially dangerous during brutally loud, disorientingly strobing, blindingly smoky EDM events. They’re also potentially deadly amidst sports, Red Bull’s other key branding arena.

In 2013, the family of a Brooklyn man called Cory Terry brought a wrongful death lawsuit for $85 million against Red Bull, charging that consumption of the energy beverage directly caused this otherwise healthy 33-year-old’s fatal heart attack on a Berlin, Maryland basketball court. As of April 2016, though, the case failed making it to trial, suggesting that Red Bull paid substantially to keep the Terry family quiet.

The following year, Red Bull resolved a different kind of lawsuit, a class-action false advertising claim challenging its “Red Bull Gives You Wings” slogan. That out-of-court settlement cost the company $13 million. How anyone would seriously consider that consuming Red Bull could possibly result in spontaneous wing growth is debatable. It becomes conceivable, then, that Red Bull might spend $13 million on a bogus lawsuit simply as a perception management maneuver, linking the search terms “Red Bull” and “lawsuit” with another case that A: has nothing to do with Red Bull’s potential health hazards, and B: makes the company appear favorable under public scrutiny. Indeed, because of the avalanche of mainstream publicity the story generated, this is the lawsuit that Google most commonly indexes to Red Bull today, not the Terry’s.

Managing the perception of whether or not Red Bull is dangerous is beyond big business. In an important way, Red Bull is no different from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, or even other “energy drink” brands. This is because, where it counts, they function in lock step.

In fact, powerful industry associations represent them all—chiefly, the American Beverage Association in the US. Britain and Canada have their own equivalents. These organizations effectively act as muscle for their clients, doing the leg- and sometimes dirty work that individual companies either can’t do alone, or don’t want to be seen doing publically. This work most often involves lobbying efforts to stall independent studies on health effects, fighting new taxes designed to curb mass consumption of sugary beverages, and swaying public opinion whenever possible.

And their collective methods are shadier than Red Bull’s marketing strategies. In October 2016, the American Beverage Association was caught in an intricate scheme that reportedly paid US dietitians to publically oppose a new soda tax via updates posted to their personal social media accounts. Credentialed opinions are not outside Red Bull’s reach. Experts have been bought.

That everyone down the line has a price tag isn’t overly surprising. And Red Bull Music Academy’s operations seem inexpensive by comparison—surely against governmental lobbying efforts: artists and their surrounding scenes are the starvingest of all. Over the past fifteen years, music recordings have plunged in value, and music journalism has slid even further. Investing in these cultural venues is a comparative cakewalk for Red Bull. And it makes clear the reasons why the corporation would go after the elusive music of the underground.

Avant-garde artists are traditionally most resistant to branding partnerships. They also cultivate fierce loyalty among their audiences, who view them to be more authentic than pop stars. Red Bull targets these artists because of—not despite—their DIY, outsider status. Thus the underground becomes a carrier signal for Red Bull’s increasingly murkier marketing mission.

Nonetheless, some of these scenes want nothing to do with Red Bull. But that doesn’t put them out of reach. RBMA can commission a “history,” say, on Montreal’s “Godspeed Generation,” effectively co-opting an especially anti-capitalist movement into the heart of its branded online ecosystem. The same goes for RBMA’s Cadence Weapon-penned account of the city’s “Torn Curtain” scene.

At first glance, these seem like thoughtful and insightful chronicles of significant cultural undercurrents that shaped Montreal’s musical identity. But they are, in effect, reliable roadmaps locating otherwise unreachable would-be customers: those thought to be above the sway of advertising: ad-blockers; cord-cutters; Gen-y’ers; Millennials—anyone deemed impervious to traditional promotional tactics.

Reaching the unreachables is what Red Bull Music Academy is all about. The logic goes: if you can locate them, you can map them. And if you can map them, you can conquer them. Marketing “campaigns” are named for their military resemblance. Red Bull goes further. Its RBMA activities are termed “activations.” Co-opted by Red Bull Music Academy, the spirit of resistance becomes the capitalist’s user manual.

But RBMA operates at arm’s length from Red Bull, right? Not true. According to their legal disclaimer, Red Bull GmbH reserves exclusive intellectual and commercial ownership over RBMA’s domain and content. All Your Avant-Garde Are Belong To Red Bull.

It’s worrying. Especially when you think about what’s in the stuff.

Still, the most abundant ingredient in Red Bull, besides sweetener and Taurine, of course, is water. The company is deliberately vague about identifying its water sources, saying only that it uses “fresh Alpine water of highest quality, which comes from springs nearby the production sites in Austria and Switzerland.”

I’m not a water policy expert. But the World Economic Forum, the influential Swiss-based foundation urges that water crises will become “the biggest threat facing the planet over the next decade.”

What Red Bull wants to do with fresh Alpine water is to add sugar. And Taurine. Put it in cans and sell it to as many of us as possible. Full stop. That’s not good for anybody.

(Read Part III of this story here.)

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