Placebo Effect Strong with Energy Drink Cocktails

Seeing an energy drink label profoundly influences how intoxicated young people feel while consuming an alcohol/energy drink cocktail, according to a new study at the Paris-based INSEAD Sorbonne University Behavioral Lab.

Energy drinks are typically advertised as being tied to risk-taking behaviors and a lack of inhibition. The study shows that this marketing tactic appears to have quite a strong placebo effect on people.

In fact, when young men were informed that an energy drink was mixed in their vodka cocktails, they felt more intoxicated, daring, and sexually self-confident. The effects of intoxication were particularly strong among those who believed that energy drinks boost the effects of liquor.

The study titled “Does Red Bull Give Wings to Vodka? Placebo Effects of Marketing Labels on Perceived Intoxication and Risky Attitudes and Behaviors,” is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

The new findings contradict previous research suggesting that mixing energy drinks with alcohol could potentially mask the effects of liquor, leading consumers to believe they weren’t drunk.

For the study, 154 young men were told they would be drinking 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.

The findings show that those 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.

In fact, labeling the same cocktail as vodka & Red Bull increased perceived intoxication by 51 percent, compared to labeling it a vodka cocktail or a fruit juice cocktail. It also increased the young men’s intentions to approach and talk to women as well as their confidence that the women would welcome it.

Finally, it led also to more risk-taking in a gambling game. All these effects were stronger for the young men 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 Red Bull & vodka label increased the participants’ intentions to wait before getting behind the wheel of a car by 14 minutes because of their perceived intoxication.

“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 at the University of British Columbia.

“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.”

While people read the term “placebo” and translate it as “fake,” the marketing placebo effect is a real psychological effect in which a brand influences consumers’ expectations and, as a result, their behavior.

These new findings reveal for the first time that there is a causal effect of mixing alcohol and energy drinks on perceived intoxication and real behaviors driven by the expectation that energy drinks boost the effects of alcohol, rather than the contents of the cocktails.

After all, all of the participants had the same drink and yet their belief about what they were drinking had a significant impact on their behavior.

“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 Behavioral Lab. “Regulations and codes of conduct should consider the psychological — and not just physiological — effects of products.”

The study highlights a need for policymakers and consumer protection groups to re-examine how energy drinks are advertised and labeled, say the authors.

Source: INSEAD