Too Much Fun

Caffeinated alcoholic drinks draw the feds' wrath for candor in advertising.


There's something about the metallic pink shimmer of Watermelon Four Loko that immediately sends a scissoring pain to your temple. As for its bouquet, imagine a Jolly Rancher hard candy drowned in a vat of Olde English 800, with perhaps a note or two of off-brand ant poison thrown in for good measure. This may be the first alcoholic beverage that can give you a hangover before you've even taken a sip. 

Get past these shortcomings, though, and Watermelon Four Loko is a party in a can. At 12 percent alcohol by volume, one 23.5-ounce tall boy can legally intoxicate 223 pounds of humanity if consumed in an hour or less. For just $2.99, it also delivers unspecified amounts of caffeine, taurine, guarana, and FD&C Red #40. "I consistently blackout when we pregame with Four," enthuses one happy customer on the Facebook page of Phusion Projects, the company that produces Four Loko. "Thanks for reminding me what my vomit looks like," exclaims another.

In November 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Phusion and 26 other brewers and distillers whose products are characterized by the "intentional addition of caffeine" (as opposed to alcoholic beverages that are flavored with coffee). Turns out the agency never explicitly approved the stimulant as an additive to any food product other than "cola-type beverages." Unless the manufacturers of Four Loko and similar products can prove that adding caffeine to alcohol is "generally recognized as safe," the FDA may force them to remove their products from the marketplace. (Energy drinks, on the other hand, are considered "dietary supplements" rather than "food," and are regulated under a different law.)

Critics charge that mixing caffeine with alcohol causes people to underestimate how intoxicated they are. In 2007 Mary Claire O'Brien, a physician at Wake Forest University, surveyed approximately 4,000 college students at 10 universities in North Carolina. She concluded that 24 percent of students who drink alcohol these days combine it with energy drinks, and these students are twice as likely to hurt themselves while drinking as students who stick to alcohol alone. "It's bad enough to be drunk, but to be an awake drunk? Now you're really in trouble," she says. "There's a reason why we pass out when we drink too much."

It's not just the presence of caffeine in beverages like Four Loko that has these products under fire. The FDA worries that caffeinated alcohol is increasingly popular among college students. The Marin Institute, a California-based temperance organization, believes that some brewers and distillers are deliberately trying to attract "young people" by making their beverages resemble non-alcoholic energy drinks. Richard Blumenthal, attorney general for the state of Connecticut, told the Chicago Tribune that the makers of Four Loko and a similar product called Joose are using misleading tactics to imply that it's possible to fill up on either product without becoming impaired. To these critics, caffeinated alcohol isn't just a potential health threat; it's a marketing threat as well.

Companies like Phusion Projects and United Beverages, which manufactures Joose, are injecting a substance even more forbidden than caffeine into the world of alcohol marketing: candor. They operate as if hedonistic 21-year-olds may in fact have an interest in alcohol, and not just for purposes of drinking responsibly. Phusion, which was founded in 2006 by three friends who met at Ohio State University, invites its customers to submit their "hottest Four party pictures" to the company's website. It sponsors beer pong tournaments. It posts uncensored testimonials like those cited above on its Facebook page.

Traditionally, the alcohol industry takes a far more sober, euphemistic approach to marketing. Housewives drunk on 100-proof laundry detergent cavort with more out-of-control abandon than the de facto teetotalers who populate our beer and liquor commercials, and brewers and distillers treat their products like medications that must be used only as directed. "Advertising and marketing materials should not depict situations where beer is being consumed rapidly, excessively, involuntarily, as part of a drinking game, or as a result of a dare," the Beer Institute's Advertising and Marketing Code states. The Distilled Spirits Council's Code of Responsible Practices sounds a similar note of caution. Beverage alcohol advertising, it advises, should not depict intoxicated people, actors under the age of 25, illegal activities, activities that require a high degree of alertness, indecent language, promiscuity, or Santa Claus. 

To fully appreciate how innocuously Big Alcohol markets its products, compare them to non-alcoholic energy drinks. When Red Bull started appearing in U.S. beverage coolers in the late 1990s, it contained 0.0 percent alcohol by volume. And yet it looked a hundred times edgier and more potent than any malt liquor on the market. The implicit message of its sleek, streamlined designer artillery shell of a can: Too much of this stuff would be more than you could handle.

Ever since, energy drinks have set the bar for provocative marketing, adopting comically illicit names like Blow and Fixx and upping the caffeine to levels that could resurrect a dead lab rat. While critics of caffeinated alcoholic beverages accuse distillers and brewers of trying to co-opt the energy drink market's teenage consumers, a more plausible contention is that they're merely trying to co-opt the energy drink market's rock 'n' roll cachet. Energy drink manufacturers are free to promote their products as a hip, sexy, cutting-edge way to enjoy a legal buzz—and what brewer or distiller wouldn't love to promote his beverage the same way instead of reciting half-hearted odes to moderation and responsibility?

Caffeinated alcohol naturally subverts Big Alcohol's preferred message of moderation: Even if upstarts in this category don't make explicit promises that they will help you party longer and stronger, what else is the caffeine for? Whether it's there to keep you from passing out so you can keep drinking, or because it combines with the alcohol to create a new kind of buzz, or because it somehow offsets the intoxicating effect of alcohol, it invariably magnifies alcohol's status as a hedonistic and/or mood-altering substance.

Ironically, though, it may be that the idea of caffeine is far more important to the popularity of brands Four Loko and Joose than the caffeine itself. On Four Loko's packaging and its website, for example, there are no claims that its caffeine and other additives will keep you awake, improve your alertness, minimize your drunkenness, or increase your energy. Nor do its fans seem to embrace these potential benefits of the product. Instead, they mostly talk about the drink's potency: the way it makes them black out or throw up or do crazy things.

To achieve these effects, no caffeine is necessary. Plain old alcohol will do the trick. But plain old alcohol is boring and sedate, the stuff thirtysomethings drink when they're sitting around in nightclubs wearing ties, behaving responsibly and clearly wishing they were doing something more fun, like attending a sales meeting. And Four Loko is for partying, dude! It says so on the Internet!

Alas, the FDA has no jurisdiction over consumers proclaiming their allegiance to fruit-flavored malt beverages on Facebook. It does have jurisdiction over food additives, though, and thus it may soon embark on the thankless, pointless task of eliminating pre-mixed caffeinated alcoholic beverages in a world awash in caffeine and alcohol. Even if it succeeds at that mission, it will find it harder to eliminate the notion that alcohol is a fun party drug that can be marketed without apology to young adults on the Internet. That idea has been proven by the success of products like Four Loko and Joose, and even if the FDA takes them down, other savvy marketers, sans caffeine, will arise to take their place. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.