A Beast Unleashed: How Monster Energy Deceives American Youth

Call of Duty Monster

Today, Monster Beverage Corporation might scoff at the mention of some of the products that preceded it, back when the company was known as Hansen’s Natural. The two product lines are about as far away from each other on the branding spectrum as possible, occupying two opposite poles under the same corporate umbrella.

The websites show it all: Hansen’s features animated butterflies and depictions of children sitting in the bed of a pick-up truck on a summer day. They’re no doubt preparing to drink one of the many natural, organic, cane sugar-sweetened soda and juice products that the company offers. Contrast that against the Monster Energy site, which accosts visitors with the ubiquitous neon green claw marks tearing through a black background, and a photo array that toggles between images of scantily clad “Monster Girls,” extreme bike jumps, and vehicles shattering glass as they crash through windows.

It’s clear which tactic is more profitable—Monster Energy raked in the vast majority of profits, even before the company officially changed its corporate name to Monster Beverage Corporation in 2012.

Chasing the Buzz

The revamped branding strategy created a Monster. The energy company swapped butterflies and pick-up trucks for Motocross bikes and gaming consoles. Monster takes a sinister and confrontational approach to advertising, aggressively shouldering its way towards a certain hard-to-reach demographic: young (mostly male) adolescents. Turning its back on the usual advertising techniques like billboards and TV ads, Monster zeroes in on its target through sponsoring a variety of activities that appeal to that tricky and ever-elusive teen demographic: extreme sports, music festivals like the Warped Tour, and gaming.

Here’s the catch: hefty evidence has emerged that warns against the safety of energy drink consumption among adolescents and young adults. A study in the journal Pediatrics linked energy drinks in general to temporary increases in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and dehydration. More specifically, consumers of Monster have reported caffeine toxicity, heart palpitations, headaches, memory impairment, kidney failure and cardiac arrest. Most unsettlingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has linked Monster to five deaths.

Yet, young people keep chasing the buzz. One study found that 30-50% of adolescents consume energy drinks. A string of other disturbing statistics followed in the wake. The number of emergency room visits related to energy drinks skyrocketed from 2007-2011, nearly doubling. Of all the reported caffeine overdoses reported in 2007, 46% occurred in people younger than 19 years old.

What gives? The negative and potentially dangerous health effects of energy drinks on young adults have been exhaustively laid out in scientific study after scientific study. But teenagers aren’t reading scientific studies. They’re watching extreme sports events, or attending music festivals like the Warped Tour, or binging on video game marathons. And that’s where the Monster lurks.

A “Big Bad Buzz”

Monster intentionally markets to kids and young adults, targeting and deceiving one of the most vulnerable populations to the negative effects of energy drinks. But they haven’t pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Monster has taken fire from all angles for its tricky marketing tactics, attracting a major class-action lawsuit as well as drawing the attention of a group of U.S. senators calling for a change to Monster’s marketing policy.

The product may generate a “big bad buzz,” but the publicity surrounding it does, too.

Mere Puffery, or Dangerous Deceit?

A 2012 class-action lawsuit filed against Monster lodges a litany of claims against the energy drink company, spearing Monster for false and misleading advertising, gearing advertisements towards youth without proper warning labels, and intentionally deceiving consumers into confusing energy drinks with sports drinks. All this, the suit argues, exposes consumers to serious and potentially devastating health risks.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2013, explaining that Monster’s alleged deceptions fell into the category of “non-actionable puffery.” This means that a little exaggeration comes with the territory of product marketing, and the claims weren’t substantial or specific enough to hold water in a lawsuit.

But that’s not the end of the story. After the lawsuit was filed, a group of Democratic senators honed in on 17 energy drink companies, including Monster. The senators implored Monster and other companies to put an end to marketing to children, pull their products from K-12 schools, voluntarily label the caffeine content of their products, and file adverse effects reports with the Food and Drug Administration. Needless to say, subtlety is not the strong suit of a company whose slogan is “Unleash the Beast!” Monster’s advertising intentions are no secret.

Monster tells the public that it targets individuals 18-30 years old. But the class-action plaintiffs unearthed and presented an internal Monster marketing document (pg. 50) that they claim dates to 2009. In that document, Monster lists its target audience as those born as late as 2000. That means the energy drink company was marketing to consumers as young as nine years old.

Mere puffery? No doubt the group of senators, nor the family of Anais Fournier, a 14-year-old girl who died after consuming two Monster beverages, would label Monster’s intentionally deceptive advertising techniques as such.

Storming the Court

There’s no denying that Monster’s marketing strategies – while deceptive – produce the desired result. (Monster maintains a strong grip on the second place slot in the energy drink market). Part of that success comes from tapping into a variety of markets. The leap from dusty off-road BMX courses to shiny high school basketball courts is a logical one.

The plaintiffs in the 2012 class-action lawsuit singled out the Monster Rehab® line as particularly misleading, presenting itself as a sports drink when in reality it contains caffeine levels comparable to a diuretic. The common placement of Monster products near sports drinks in convenience stores reinforces this misrepresentation.

In case this advertising doesn’t do the trick, Monster ensured that the drinks made it onto the court in a promotion called the “Monster Energy Drink Player of the Game,” in which high school athletes pose with cases of the energy drink under their arms, the neon green claw marks front and center.

And if all else fails, there’s always the “Monster Army,” a program for 13-21-year-old athletes who receive sponsorship in exchange for representing the Monster brand. Who are 13-year-olds more likely to trust than their fellow 13-year-olds, who are supposedly “pounding down” Monster Energy drinks?

From the Court to the Couch

Sitting on a couch in front of a TV might be the farthest place imaginable from the extreme snowboard halfpipes – and even the high school basketball courts – where Monster usually shows its face. But videogame culture is another niche that adolescents have carved out for themselves. And where the teenagers go, Monster soon follows.

Monster has Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts (all mediums wildly popular with adolescents and young adults) dedicated to Monster Gaming. Gamers covet Monster sponsorships, the black and green can always within reach just beyond the keyboard or game console. Energy drinks are embedding themselves in the culture: a study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior linked higher energy drink consumption to more frequent video game playing.

But being wired is becoming the norm for adolescent gamers, and that comes with dangerous consequences. Last year, a 14-year-old Norwegian boy fell into a coma after collapsing during a 16-hour video game binge, during which he allegedly consumed four liters of an energy drink.

A lapse in judgment? Maybe. But with slogans urging consumers to “tear into” and “pound down” 24 ounces of an energy drink with a “smooth easy drinking flavor” in a non-resealable container, this might be Monster’s exact intention.

A Dirty Cocktail

What’s the need for all the intentionally deceptive marketing in the first place? Monster’s shady track record on advertising and marketing techniques warrants a closer look at the breakdown of the product itself.

So, we’re on the case. We’re lodging a complaint against Monster, arguing that too much murkiness surrounds the ingredient combinations. We aim to set the record straight on proper testing and the effects of these unknown ingredient formulas. We’re raising tough questions of insufficient testing at independent facilities that aren’t affiliated with the FDA. The consequences of Monster continuing these business practices unchecked are potentially devastating—we’re hearing about side effects as serious as strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure.

Monster is already well practiced in dodging the FDA. Previously classified as a “dietary supplement” rather than a beverage, Monster Energy slipped through a loophole that allowed the company to side-step meaningful FDA regulations and keep mum about caffeine levels. Though Monster has since changed its classification from supplement to beverage after taking heat from both the medical and legal communities, the ingredient cocktail remains questionable and insufficiently tested.

Everyone knows Monster contains traditional caffeine, but it’s not the only source of buzz in the drinks. Monster products stir in a mix of various other substances, such as guarana, taurine, and ginseng, which each have their own independent properties. Simply labeling caffeine content doesn’t tell the whole story—certain of these ingredients provide their own naturally occurring source of caffeine, which piggybacks on the amount of traditional caffeine listed on the label. While the effects of caffeine are widely studied and mostly known, these cocktails of ingredients are not.

Testing each ingredient separately and then claiming that they’re safe in combination is neither sufficient nor necessarily safe. Nature tells us that. Take nitrogen, for example. It’s the most abundant element in the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, it’s essential for life. Now take hydrogen. We can’t live without it, or the oceans and lakes and rivers that it makes. Both these elements are colorless, odorless, and tasteless. But when we put them together in the right combination, we get ammonia.

Measure a heavy dose of caffeine. Pull a few other ingredients off the shelf and pour into the cocktail shaker. Add more than a dash of deceptive advertising to the mix, shake well, and America has itself a potentially lethal Monster cocktail. Pound it down.