UBC Study Delivers The Ultimate Buzzkill: Red Bull Doesn’t Really Give You Wings

Mixing Red Bull with your vodka might make you feel more drunk, but according to researchers it's just the power of marketing.

June 16, 2017

By Maansi Pandya / Photo: Pexels

Let’s face it, we all love relishing the summer months with an ice cold alcoholic beverage (or two!). Whether it’s the much-awaited patio season or Granville Street transforming into something akin to a frat party, drinking is definitely a significant part of Vancouver’s culture. When it comes to how quickly we feel buzzed, we’re all different. But could a placebo effect actually impact how drunk we feel?

According to a new research study at the University of British Columbia, if you tell someone their alcoholic beverage contains an energy drink like Red Bull, it can actually make them feel more intoxicated than they really are. Essentially, it’s all in your head. The study was conducted by the Sauder School of Business and was intended to study the effect of marketing and consumer beliefs on mixing alcohol with energy drinks.

We’ve all heard the slogan “Red Bull gives you wings,” but according to Yann Cornil, lead author of the study, it’s this kind of marketing and advertising that makes people think something is intoxicating when in reality, it just isn’t. The researchers found that emphasizing the presence of an energy drink in a cocktail increased perceived drunkenness, as well as sexual confidence and the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviour. This was especially the case for participants who already believed adding an energy drink would have those effects. “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,” says Cornil.

The study tested 154 young men with a cocktail consisting of Red Bull, Smirnoff vodka and Caraibos Nectar Planteur. The drinks were labelled to either emphasize the energy drink or not, for instance “vodka Red Bull cocktail,” “vodka cocktail” or “exotic fruit cocktail.” After downing the drinks, participants were told to complete a series of tasks to test their drunkenness, attitudes and behaviour.

The tasks themselves were quite varied. For example, participants were shown images of 15 women and asked how confident they were with getting their phone numbers, then asked to complete a gambling game where they would inflate a balloon and earn more money the more it was inflated. They had the option of leaving with their winnings or continuing to inflate the balloon, knowing if it popped they would lose everything.

Based on the findings, it would seem Cornil was spot on. The study revealed the participants who drank the “vodka Red Bull cocktail” felt more confident than those who drank the “vodka cocktail” or “exotic fruit cocktail.” Interestingly, the study also had a silver lining: “It seems that drunk-driving education is working enough to make people think hard about driving when they are feeling drunk,” says co-author Aradhna Krishna. Basically, the participants who consumed the cocktail with the energy drink ended up waiting a bit longer before jumping in their vehicles and driving home.

The study also makes the case that food safety agencies and industry associations should re-examine the way they advertise their energy drinks and alcoholic beverages, factoring in their psychological effects. In other words, as snazzy/cheesy as they may sound, taglines like “Red Bull gives you wings” or “unleash the monster” should be avoided altogether. According to Cornil, the messaging is likely to make people take dangerous risks or engage in reckless behaviour: Exhibit A, the 2011 Stanley Cup Riots. Definitely not our proudest moment.

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