Belief increases buzz: mixing energy drinks and alcohol

Middle East, Asia, Europe
11 May 2017

Energy drink advertisements which tout risk taking and uninhibited behaviour profoundly influence how young people believe they are intoxicated when they mix these drinks with alcohol. When told an energy drink is mixed in their vodka cocktails, young men feel more intoxicated, daring, and sexually self-confident, new research suggests. The effects of intoxication were stronger in those who believe that energy drinks boost the effect of liquor.

Previous studies suggested that mixing energy drinks with alcohol could mask the effects of liquor, leading consumers to believe they weren’t drunk but, in a trial of 154 young men at the Paris-based INSEAD Sorbonne University Behavioural Lab, the opposite was found to be true.

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: Red Bull & vodka, a vodka cocktail or a fruit juice cocktail. The effect of the label alone on participants’ self-assessment of intoxication was remarkable.

Researchers found that 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.

Labeling the same cocktail as vodka & Red Bull increased perceived intoxication by 51%, compared to labelling it a vodka cocktail or a fruit juice cocktail. It also increased the young men’s intentions to approach and “chat up” women, and their confidence that they would welcome it. Finally, it led also to more risk-taking in a gambling game. All these 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.

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

Yann Cornil, Assistant Professor of the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, Pierre Chandon, the L'Oréal Chaired Professor of Marketing, Innovation and Creativity at INSEAD, and Aradhna Krishna, the Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, published the results of their study in the paper “Does Red Bull Give Wings to Vodka? Placebo Effects of Marketing Labels on Perceived Intoxication and Risky Attitudes and Behaviours”, forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

“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 Cornil. “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.”

Labelling functions as a “placebo” in this study. People read “placebo” and see “fake” but the marketing placebo effect is a real psychological effect in which a brand influences 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 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.”

According to the researchers, the findings highlight a need for policymakers and consumer protection groups to re-examine how energy drinks are advertised and labelled.

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

“The silver lining was that emphasizing the energy drink in the cocktail made the participants less likely to drive,” said study co-author Krishna. “It seems that drunk-driving education is working enough to make people think hard about driving when they are feeling drunk.”

This article has implications for consumers of energy drinks and alcohol, government regulators, and those who market new products which could be pitched in a way that encourages reckless behaviour. 

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