The study, co-authored by University of Michigan professor Aradhna Krishna and published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, is believed to be the first to examine the effect of marketing on consumer beliefs related to alcohol mixed with energy drinks.
"Studies say there's no physiological difference from drinking alcohol mixed with energy drinks, but we wanted to study the psychological effects," said Krishna, the Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing at the Ross School of Business. "We find beliefs that are informed by the marketing of these drinks make the antisocial behavior associated with drinking more likely."
While earlier studies suggested that mixing energy drinks and alcohol could be dangerous, recent experiments in which people were not told what they were drinking found that mixing the two had no effect on actual or perceived intoxication and was unlikely to increase alcohol's effect on behavior.
Despite this, those who knowingly mix energy drinks with alcohol have twice the risk of experiencing or committing sexual assault or being involved in a car crash, compared to people who drink alcohol straight.
"Red Bull has long used the 'Red Bull gives you wings' slogan, but our study shows that this type of advertising can make people think it has intoxicating qualities when it doesn't," said Yann Cornil, the study's lead author and assistant professor 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."
To test their theory that the marketing of energy drinks could result in a placebo effect, the researchers recruited 154 young men who were each given a cocktail containing vodka, Red Bull and fruit juice.
The labeling of the cocktail either emphasized the presence of the energy drink, describing it as a "vodka-Red Bull cocktail," or not, describing it as either a "vodka cocktail" or "exotic fruits cocktail." Participants were then asked to complete a series of tasks on a computer to measure the perceived drunkenness and their attitudes and behaviors.
The researchers found that emphasizing the presence of an energy drink significantly increased perceived intoxication, risk-taking and sexual self-confidence among participants who already had a strong belief that mixing energy drinks with alcohol would have this effect.
They also measured how likely participants were to drive, and found that emphasizing the energy drink decreased participants' intentions to drive under the influence.
"The silver lining was that emphasizing the energy drink in the cocktail made the participants less likely to drive," Krishna said. "It seems that drunk-driving education is working enough to make people think hard about driving when they are feeling drunk."
Given the study's findings about the psychological effects of energy-drink marketing, Cornil said energy drink marketers should be banned from touting the disinhibiting effects of their ingredients.
The study's other author is Pierre Chandon, a professor at INSEAD.