Ads promoting energy drinks and alcohol mixing influences the perceived effects of intoxication

Does Red Bull and Vodka give you wings?

Energy drink ads touting risk-taking and uninhibited behaviour have been found influential in how young people believe they are intoxicated when they consume it with alcohol, according to new research by Paris-based INSEAD Sobonne University Behavioural Lab.

The new research findings, based on a trial of 154 young men, have debunked previous studies that suggested mixing energy drinks with alcohol could mask the effects of alcohol, leading consumers to believe they were not drunk.

Through the study participants were told they would drink a cocktail of an energy drink, vodka and fruit juice. Although all drinks had the same ingredients, they had different labels such as Red Bull & vodka, vodka cocktail or fruit juice cocktail.

The study found a profound effect on the participants’ self assessment of intoxication. Participants who believed they were drinking an energy drink and alcohol cocktail were more likely to believe themselves quite drunk and uninhibited. This was especially true among those who had a strong belief that mixing energy drinks with liquor would boost the effects of liquor.

The same cocktail labelled as vodka & Red Bull increased perceived intoxication by 51% compared to cocktails labelled vodka cocktail or fruit juice cocktail. Having an energy drink mixer also increased participants’ intentions to approach and ‘chat up’ women, and their confidence. It also led to more risk-taking in a gambling game. The effects were stronger for the participants who most strongly believed that energy drinks boost the effects of alcohol and that being intoxicated reduces inhibitions and increases risk taking.

“Red Bull has long used the slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings,’ but our study shows that this type of advertising can make people think it has intoxicating qualities when it doesn’t,” said lead author Yann Cornil, assistant professor of the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, and Pierre Chandon, the L'Oréal chaired professor of marketing, innovation and creativity at INSEAD.

“Essentially, when alcohol is mixed with an energy drink and people are aware of it, they feel like they’re more intoxicated simply because the marketing says they should feel that way,” he added.

The marketing placebo effect is a real psychological effect in which brands influence consumers’ expectations and, as a result, their behaviour. This study shows for the first time that there is a causal effect of mixing alcohol and energy drinks on perceived intoxication and real behaviours driven by the expectation that energy drinks boost the effects of alcohol, rather than the contents of the cocktails. All participants had the same drink, yet their belief about what they were drinking had an impact on their behaviour.

“Beliefs that people have about a product can be just as important as the ingredients of the product itself,” said Pierre Chandon, co-author and director of the INSEAD Sorbonne Behavioural Lab.

“Regulations and codes of conduct should consider the psychological - and not just physiological - effects of products,” he added.

These findings highlight a need for a re-examination on how energy drinks are labelled and advertised.

“Given the psychological effects of energy-drink marketing, energy drink marketers should be banned from touting the disinhibiting effects of their ingredients,” said Cornil.

On a plus side, the research found the Red Bull & vodka label increased intentions to wait before getting behind the wheel by 14 minutes because of perceived intoxication.

“The silver lining was that emphasizing the energy drink in the cocktail made the participants less likely to drive,” said study co-author Aradhna Krishna, the Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

“It seems that drunk-driving education is working enough to make people think hard about driving when they are feeling drunk,” she added.

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