Energy drink manufacturers took some tough questions from a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday on the marketing of energy drinks to children - which the witnesses said they did not do - both online and in other media.
A clip from an ad featuring an animated zebra - shades of Joe Camel - and photos of children with cans of the product and in sports settings (skateboarders, for example) were on display to counter claims that the beverages were not aimed at children.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) did not leave the Joe Camel association unstated, pointing out that cigarette manufacturers target the next generation of smokers - those manufacturers always argued their marketing was about brand switching, not recruitment. He advised the energy drink companies to "focus on safety not semantics."
Representatives of Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar, to varying degrees, promised to take steps to prevent underage consumption of their beverage, which they suggested would be by children 12 and under, but all insisted they do not market to the younger demographic. Asked whether they thought an ad featuring a teenager would appeal to a child, Monster CEO Rodney Sacks said no.
Academics on the witness panel begged to differ.
Witness Dr. Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, said that marketing featuring 16 year olds "are really appealing to younger kids."
The energy drink execs said they were not targeting teens, though they also said teens would not be harmed by drinking their product, citing numerous studies.
They also said that if the government is going to limit caffeine marketing, it needs to look beyond their product to sodas, teas and coffee.
"We remain open to discussing changes for the entire beverage industry, and believe that any comprehensive effort regarding child and teen nutrition must include all sugar - and caffeine containing beverages," said Amy Taylor, VP and general manager of Red Bull North America.