How Energy-Drink Companies Prey on Male Insecurity
From NewYorker.com, November 28 2015
Read at newyorker.com
THE GLOBAL TEAM of athletes sponsored by Monster Energy, the caffeinated-beverage company, is a roster of super bros. Conor McGregor, of Ireland, is a densely tattooed mixed-martial-arts champion who trained in Tae Kwon Do, karate, capoeira, and kickboxing while working as a plumber, prior to turning pro in M.M.A. Tom Schaar, of Malibu, became, at the age of twelve, the first person to land a 1080-degree airborne rotation on a skateboard, and was the youngest-ever gold medalist at the X Games, ESPN’s annual extreme-sports competition. And Josh Brookes, an Australian motorbike racer, whose job Monster describes as “ripping through the tarmac at 150 mph,” spends his downtime wakeboarding, snowboarding, and jet skiing. To convey the idea that its drinks can help any guy “unleash the beast,” Monster produces slick video compilations of dizzying stunts performed by these and other athletes. It also hosts events that feature “Monster Girls” with names like Bradi, Rhi Rhi, and Magnollia, and such personalities as the Dingo, a snowboarder-turned-emcee, and the actor Wee Man, of “Jackass” fame.
Monster isn’t the only energy-drink company to adopt this kind of approach: its primary competitors, Red Bull and Rockstar, also use male-centered marketing. The strategy has worked. Over the past two decades, as U.S. soft-drink consumption has declined—full-calorie-soda sales dropped twenty-five per cent during that period, according to a recent Times report—the energy-drink market has been thriving. The beverages are consumed regularly by thirty-one per cent of kids between the ages of twelve and seventeen, and by thirty-four per cent of those aged eighteen to twenty-four. U.S. sales for energy drinks and shots now total more than twelve and a half billion dollars—a number that the market-research firm Packaged Facts predicts will grow by another nine billion dollars by 2017.
A new study, published in the November issue of Health Psychology, suggests that appeals by energy-drink companies to the thrill-thirsty male id are coming at a psychological and physical cost, however. The researchers sought to trace a cascade effect leading from beliefs about manliness and the efficacy of energy drinks, to the consumption of those beverages, to potentially harmful sleep disturbance. They found that the more a man bought into masculine ideals, the more he believed that energy drinks made him manly—and the more he drank them, the more his sleep was troubled. (The F.D.A. doesn’t require that quantities of caffeine be listed on labels, but a Consumer Reports story from 2012 found that energy drinks and shots contain between six and two hundred and forty-two milligrams per serving. Health experts tend to regard four hundred milligrams per day as safe for most adults, and no more than a hundred milligrams as safe for adolescents.)
While the connection between unrealistic standards of beauty and low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating among girls and women has been widely researched and discussed, this study is one of the few to establish a link between marketing to male insecurity and unhealthy habits. A team of researchers led by Ronald F. Levant, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron, asked four hundred and sixty-seven men between the ages of eighteen and sixty-two to fill out two questionnaires probing the degree to which they agreed with statements about traditional masculinity (“A man should prefer watching action movies to reading romantic novels”) and the benefits of energy drinks (“If I consume energy drinks, I will perform better”). They were also asked about the quantity of their energy-drink consumption and the quality of their sleep.
The study builds, in part, on a 2013 Taiwanese paper showing that college-age men used the drinks to “regulate their personal sense of masculinity” and that they will drink more of them if they perceive their masculinity to be threatened. Levant told me that energy-drink marketing operates on young men in much the same way that diet-food marketing preys on young women’s anxieties about their attractiveness. Young men, he said, “haven’t yet accrued enough of what we call ‘masculine capital’ and are anxious to prove that they are real men.” Older men weren’t as vulnerable to the messaging, likely because they’re more confident. (Men of color were also unaffected, though the results of the study were inconclusive about why. Levant suggested that it may be because they are rarely featured in energy-drink ads.)
While psychologists and health-care professionals may find the identification, among young men, of manliness with caffeinated drinks concerning, for the beverage industry it’s the equivalent of nailing a 1080. Darren Seifer, an analyst at the market-research firm N.P.D. Group, told me that when energy drinks entered the highly segmented U.S. non-alcoholic-beverage market, in the nineteen-nineties, they needed to find a niche. “There were already behemoths—soft drinks that had vast mass appeal and then their line extensions, like diet versions, which attracted specific consumers,” he said. So, companies like Red Bull and Monster tried to set themselves apart by appealing to the emotions of an impressionable demographic. “Energy drinks needed to establish a base with a particular group and then expand from there,” Seifer said. “So the message was, ‘Hey young guys, put down those soft drinks, you want this.’ ”
Pitching caffeinated beverages to pubescent boys might seem like an obvious match, but Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, who writes frequently about gender issues, told me that energy-drink companies had to overcome a built-in bias in food marketing. Sugar is what Wade calls “a feminized calorie.” Women tend, in advertising, to be depicted as consumers of sweet things, like chocolate and fruity drinks, while men are more associated with red meat and savory snacks, like spicy tortilla chips. The challenge for sweet energy beverages, Wade said, “was to figure out how to man them up. So you associate them with extreme sports and extremely good performance.” (Gatorade and Mountain Dew took this approach, as well.) Women also consume caffeinated beverages, of course, but companies play on different emotions, desires, and values when marketing to them, instead pitching more ladylike diet sodas, nutritious smoothies, and soothing hot teas. The result has been that family fridges now often contain multiple varieties of drinks, devised to reassure the demographical identity of each member.
The pervasiveness of gender-specific beverage marketing, and especially of the targeting of energy drinks to teen-age boys, contrasts with mounting resistance to the practice in industries like children’s clothing and toys, where parents have expressed concern that pink-versus-blue, princess-versus-superhero divisions reinforce sexist and homophobic stereotypes. Wade, who writes a blog called Sociological Images and maintains a Pinterest account devoted to “pointlessly gendered objects,” said that companies can sell more products if they convince consumers to divide their purchases by gender—so that, for example, husbands and wives can’t share a shampoo. Though Wade’s blog often focusses on the absurd lengths to which marketers will go—think Kleenex for Men or Bic for Her (“A ball pen essentially for women!”)—she also argues that, at a time when women and men are increasingly leading similar lives, needless reminders of gender in the items we buy are “a ubiquitous and aggressive ideological force.”
Retailers of toys and children’s clothing have begun to respond to the critiques. Target recently announced that it would be phasing out gender-based signs in the children’s section of its stores. Amazon has eliminated its gender-categorization option for toys. And this past Halloween, the Disney Store made its costume collection gender-neutral. But in the beverage industry, the incentive to emphasize and exploit gender norms—and, more powerfully, gender anxieties—remains strong. Energy-drink producers have lately been focussing their attention on “gaming-fuel” beverages, such as Monster Energy Gaming and G Fuel, which are aimed at younger boys who play video games, and which promise to boost focus and endurance. Gamma Labs, which makes G Fuel, promotes a popular clan (or team) of professional Call of Duty players, even moving them into a house and live-streaming their activities, which include guzzling G Fuel products.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association have both advocated a ban on the marketing of energy-drinks to children, citing health risks, but a Senate committee studying regulation of the industry reported earlier this year that of the sixteen companies they approached, only four said that they avoid marketing their products to children. There have been several fatalities in the U.S. related to the use of energy drinks and shots, and last year, a fourteen-year-old boy in Norway was hospitalized with kidney failure after consuming four liters of energy drinks during a sixteen-hour Call of Duty session. When consumed over a long term, Levant’s study confirmed that, in college-age men, the drinks can cause anxiety, dehydration, insomnia, and cardiovascular vascular problems. A separate study, released earlier this month by the American Heart Association, found that consuming just one sixteen-ounce energy drink elevates blood pressure and stress-hormone responses in young, healthy adults.
Levant told me that adherence to traditional ideas about masculine behavior is generally associated with negative health outcomes. “Manly” men—or men who want to appear that way—are more likely to abuse alcohol and less likely to be tested for H.I.V., for instance. Energy-drink use has become only the latest example. “There are so many men who still struggle with the belief that they are obligated to perform traditional masculinity or they’re worthless,” Levant said. “That’s the vulnerability that marketers and advertisers tap into.”