Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Energy Crisis - Killing the Kids

A while back I flicked on to TG4 (the Irish language channel) in time to see some slickly shot 'extreme sports' footage that caused me to pause a touch longer than usual.  The skills on show by the riders were astounding, from FMX to MTB to Snowsports, numerous athletes were putting their arses well and truly on the line to pull a trick that would gain them a few brief seconds of TV coverage. Whilst marvelling at the unique range of abilities, I couldn't help instantly noticing that the whole show was like watching a super-extended Red Bull advert.  A double back flip on a motocross bike got maybe ten seconds of footage with a full speed and a slow-mo but then the lingering view of the rider with the focus almost completely on the branding on his full face helmet got double that.  Up next, a skier in a Red Bull skinsuit, oh, and look, there's that Felix Bumgardener dude doing his big skydive thing from a Red Bull capsule.  I started to get pretty perturbed by this advertising bombardment but was intrigued enough to watch to the end to see what the story was and sure enough at the end of the credits was this; 'Xtreme Sports – Best of Yoz.  Red Bull media house'.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but TG4 is a partially state funded channel with a remit of promoting the Irish language and culture, not an advertising platform for an 'energy' product (more on that later). I realise that programming is expensive and there aren't that many Irish language TV production companies or indeed Irish speakers around to fill a schedule.  However, at what point did it become acceptable to allow this degree of subliminal marketing to masquerade as a legitimate programme, especially one that is clearly targeted at the youth market?

And herein lies my dilemma.  Red Bull, and latterly Monster have clearly ploughed ££££'s into the sport that I love alongside many other sports that have shifted distinctly towards the mainstream whilst funded by the gloopy drinks companies and their slick media operations.  In turn, this has undeniably allowed more full time athletes to pursue their goals, pushing the standards of skills to previously unimaginable levels.  Beyond that, Red Bull have been central to the development and sponsorship of a plethora of events that would otherwise never have been conceived.  The question is, at what cost?
They undeniably support events and make cool stuff happen.
 Sorry, couldn't find a credit for this pic.  Contact me if it's yours.
Back when I started riding MTB it was a very different animal.  Now I'm not claiming that it's in any way 'cool' now but at least it's got a recognisable and largely positively regarded image.  We've come a long way from the days of riding circles round muddy fields in full lycra with 500mm bars and bar ends.  Skills and mindsets have changed rapidly and technology has had to constantly adapt to keep up as the boundaries of possibility have been blown off the scale again.  If you'd told me as a sixteen year old that within 20 years there would be people backflipping 70+ foot canyons on MTB's I'd obviously not have believed you.  Back then pulling a five foot huck to flat was about the pinnacle of radness!  And it has to be said that, credit where credit's due, the driving force (cash and vision) behind these phenomenal advances can be traced back to the original Red Bull Rampage.  If you don't know what it is then YouTube it but basically it represented a seismic shift in what was conceivable on a bike with maniacs like Robbie Bourdon and Wade Simmons (and our own Glyn O'Brien) hurling themselves off huge cliffs in a space like Utah desertscape.  So Red Bull can claim to have advanced MTB (and other sports) and also maintained them through event development, mainstream marketing and individual sponsorship deals.  So where's the catch?

The catch is that the product itself is so harmful and it's being deliberately targeted at a youth market who are the last people who should need artificial stimulants to be consumed as a norm on a daily basis.  Now I'm not definitely claiming it's inherently dangerous (although let's not forget that for several years it was banned in France, Denmark and Norway and evidence is mounting that it is potentially lethal), what I'm saying is that it's totally unnecessary, particularly for kids.  Here's a couple of tales from my experience.

Back in my student days Red Bull was just appearing and we quickly realised that alongside Vodka it made a potent mix with pretty enjoyable effects (more for us than for anyone near us!).  Back then I was already big into my training albeit with virtually zero knowledge of proper nutrition.  Following my selection as the University MTB team captain I decided to go all out for results at the National Champs and stay off the booze for a whole term!  Of course I didn't go out any less, I just drank this new Red Bull stuff which gave me the energy to keep on clubbing.  And then my form began to slump.  Funnily enough, the inability to sleep, the battering of my Cortisol levels and the peaks and troughs in energy weren't conducive to physical performance and in fact my training results after a few cans of Red Bull were worse than after nine pints of Tetleys and a dodgy spring roll. Experiential learning duly noted, I vowed to stay off the Red Bull anywhere near race time.

A few years later in my formative years as an Outdoor Professional I was working with a group of teenagers doing the standard range of 'team tasks' that blight the burgeoning careers of semi-qualified young instructors!  The group were a nice bunch of kids and were actually pretty engaged in the activities.. until after lunch.  During the break, one of the lads drank a litre bottle of Boost (cheapy Red Bull) and for want of a better phrase turned into a total dick.  In fact he became so disruptive that it was really difficult to keep them all functioning as a group at all.  Prior to that he'd been fine and unless someone had laced his Tayto's with amphetamine I can only assume that it was the drink that had brought about this complete personality transformation.  I can only wonder what teachers make of the substances.

So who the hell am I to question people's lifestyle choices?  Well nobody really except I'm perfectly within my rights to be concerned.  I'm also pretty sure that from a nutritional standpoint these so called 'energy drinks' are actually a rapid way to ensure huge fluctuations in energy levels, problems with attaining proper sleep patterns and all the associated physical and mental health issues that subsequently arise.  Is there really any difference between Gee Atherton having Red Bull adverts all over his kit to him having Marlboro ones?  What would the reaction be if Sam Hill sat on the hot seat and nervously chain smoked instead of supping from a can of Monster (and really, are we meant to believe that athletes of that calibre are actually drinking that shit?).  I'm not alone in these concerns either.  Pro snowboarders Bryan Fox and Austin Smith actually started a 'drink water' campaign in 2011 as a direct reaction to Smith being offered a lucrative deal from one of the drinks companies. They felt that as role models who kids aspire to be like, they should be sending a positive message of health, and we're not talking Volvic here, their logo is simply a tap.
Fair play to these lads turning down the cash and sticking up two fingers to the corporations.
Sorry, couldn't find a credit for this pic.  Contact me if it's yours.
So what am I saying?  Personally I think that all these energy drinks (and all fizzy drinks really) shouldn't be on sale to under 18's and should have hefty limitations on marketing, just like cigarettes. The links to all sorts of nasty illnesses, from the obvious diabetes and heart conditions to less obvious mental health issues have been documented many many times over.  Latterly, something much more instant and terrifying has come to light as the correlation between 'energy drinks' and the spate of sudden deaths amongst seemingly healthy young people have been further researched (check this out and there's loads more too).

The money and likewise the innovation that Red Bull bring into sport have undeniably assisted athletes but it's such a shame that those talented individuals have to push a harmful substance on to a vulnerable consumer group in order to pay their bills.  I'm sure some of them don't care one bit what they have to sell their soul for in order to buy shiny new crap but it's heartening to see that a few others do place their social conscience beyond economic factors.  If their actions can persuade just a few of the kids I see slugging that syrup at bus stops on the way to school to stop and think about the physical effects then they've done a worthwhile job.

No comments:

Post a Comment