Red Bull’s long-running ad campaign featuring hand-drawn cartoons has consistently communicated the product promise that Red Bull “gives you wiiings”. Often this idea has been depicted literally, as the cartoon protagonists sprout wings allowing them to fly out of trouble or perform at higher levels.
Leading marketing academic Professor Kevin Lane Keller, in a comprehensive case study of the brand, writes that Red Bull’s ads were very effective “because they clearly communicated product benefits without promising specific physiological results”. However, although it looks similar, Red Bull’s new ad – which I saw for the first time this week – goes way beyond this well-established advertising formula.
The setting is a nude beach. A young woman is lying, presumably naked, reading a newspaper. A man arrives and asks her if it’s OK if he sets up next to her (his genitals are obscured by a horizontal black rectangle). They have a brief conversation and she offers him a can of Red Bull. He has a drink and immediately develops an erection, depicted by a change in angle of the black rectangle. While he appears to be embarrassed, she clearly approves. The ad is tagged in the usual manner: “Red Bull gives you wiiings”.
Why will this ad cause problems for Red Bull?
It’s not that the subject matter of the ad could cause offence – it’s a cartoon, after all, and the erection is implied (although there’s nothing equivocal about it). It’s not even that the tone is creepy and sleazy – erections on a nude beach are a bit Benny Hill-ish at the best of times.
The real problem here is that this ad makes no bones about what physiological benefit is being promised. It cannot be interpreted other than as a literal claim that Red Bull causes or enhances erection.
While medical opinion would suggest the opposite if anything (excessive caffeine intake is sometimes listed as contributing to erectile dysfunction), the internet is full of anecdotes, opinions and myths linking Red Bull to sexual performance. There are even YouTube testimonials to its power (WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT AND LANGUAGE. DEFINITELY NOT SAFE FOR WORK, KIDS, etc.).
Is Red Bull seeking to exploit internet rumours and gossip? That would be dicey strategy for any well-established brand.
But there are more serious legal issues here. What looks like an unequivocal and explicit claim for beneficial effects on male sexual function – or any physiological effect for that matter – would normally need to be validated by evidence, or Red Bull could be found to have breached regulations around the promotion of therapeutic goods.
In other words, would the Red Bull ad stand up in court?