If you’re at all familiar with the brand Red Bull, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Red Bull gives you wings!” But if you’re a college student looking to throw a party, this may not be all that Red Bull gives you — they might throw in a table, a mini fridge filled with different flavored energy drinks and even a set of speakers.
The brand of non-alcoholic energy drink holds a divisive presence at the University of Portland. While the company offers potentially valuable marketing experience to students it hires to represent the brand, Public Safety says the party culture Red Bull creates poses a problem.
A key part of Red Bull’s marketing strategy is targeting college students. Its “Wings Team,” in which predominantly female employees walk around in backpacks and pass out free products, has found its way into house parties at UP and other colleges across the country.
While Red Bull is non-alcoholic, young people often mix the drink with vodka.
The company hires college students to work as “Wings” who go on “missions,” passing out free Red Bull at college football games, parties, work offices and downtown events. They also hire college “Brand Managers” who seek out and direct the “Wings Team” towards events on and off campus, supplying branded coolers filled with energy drinks, and sometimes speakers and tables at events ranging from a weekly spin class at the Beauchamp Recreation Center to a large off-campus party like “Rainbow Road”.
Members of the “Wings Team” make up to $12.50 an hour, according to students and alumni who have interviewed for positions, and many list Red Bull on their LinkedIn profiles and resumes. However, student affairs personnel believe that the type of party culture Red Bull aims to represent can pose a safety threat.
“What I think (students are) missing in the short term is that those amazing parties you went to sponsored by Red Bull sometimes can be opportunities for really poor decision making that could have implications on you for the rest of your life,” said Tyler Hale, Hall Director for Tyson and Haggerty.
Red Bull was recently involved in “Rainbow Road,” UP’s unofficial annual “house crawl” party.
The company didn’t supply any alcohol or monetarily sponsor the event, but the “Wings Team” was assigned to cover the event, walking around with backpack coolers and passing out free energy drinks.
Director of Public Safety Gerald Gregg says he thinks it’s worrisome that Red Bull was dispersing its products at the event because, even though the company was not doing anything illegal, it had a presence where underage students were drinking.
“I find it completely outrageous,” Gregg said. “I think Red Bull being involved in a college party is absolutely ridiculous.”
UP alumnus (‘15) Cameron Trostle said that while he was a student at UP, he and his friends threw multiple parties where Red Bull provided free products and supplies, but they never referred to the events as “Red Bull parties.”
According to Trostle, Red Bull was just there to help out. Representatives would bring over some of their new flavors and products and set-up speakers and tables. Wings would hand out free drinks and the Red Bull team would either drop supplies off and leave or hang around and chat with friends and college students.
Often for student partygoers, the Red Bull marketing team goes unnoticed. Junior Amy Duley says that parties at UP would still be going on with or without Red Bull’s involvement.
“A lot of the time, I don’t really notice whether Red Bull is there or not, but I guess from a marketing perspective that’s the point,” Duley said. “The brand kind of submerges itself in party culture so you just subconsciously associate it with drinking, staying awake and having fun.”
While “Wings” are generally the most visible members of a Red Bull marketing team, brand ambassadors are more behind-the-scenes. This year, Red Bull has brand managers at the University of Portland, the University of Oregon and Portland State University.
The current University of Portland Red Bull student brand manager is Brae Hunziker. Hunziker’s job is to “integrate Red Bull into the student lifestyle.” He tracks down events on campus — including house parties — and sets up Red Bull mini-fridges and whatever else might be needed.
Portland Red Bull representatives, including Hunziker, declined to comment.
What’s the Liability?
While a party like “house crawl” or “block party” might enjoy the perks of Red Bull amenities, you won’t ever see the words “sponsored by Red Bull” on the Facebook invitation.
According to the company, “Red Bull actually doesn't offer typical corporate sponsorship or partnerships for third party events. Basically, we don't provide any title sponsorship or monetary donations for things that we did not create. However, sometimes it is possible for us to provide some other sort of support for the event, such as the Wings Team. Just depends on what and who the area manager has available.”
However, Gregg still raises the question of whether Red Bull is liable by being present at events in which dangerous incidents are possible.
“It creates dangerous situations and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how they as a corporation don’t realize the liability they may be exposing their corporation to,” Gregg said. “If somebody gets hurt at a party that they had a hand in, they’re going to be named in the suit.”
In his role as hall director, Hale says he’s noticed more severe consequences when these events go on.
“As someone who is in my fourth year here, if we do catch wind of Red Bull throwing a party, I know it’s going to be a rough night and I know it’s a night where we might have some close calls,” Hale said. “I don’t think anyone wants to see a student get put into the back of an ambulance.”
This issue of safety for his residents is what concerns Hale about Red Bull’s involvement in off-campus parties. To both Hale and Gregg, the combination of high levels of sugar and caffeine with binge drinking seems like a recipe for disaster.
Studies on this, however, are inconclusive. One study done by Society for the Study of Addiction in 2014 says that while over-consumption of both Red Bull and alcohol (or anything, for that matter) may be unhealthy, the two don’t necessarily enhance each other in any way.
Yet researchers at Purdue University in Indiana may have recently disproved this. Using mice as subjects in a study published this past June, they found that the combination of caffeine with alcohol caused an increase in movement in the mice compared to when they consumed only caffeine. A similar effect could be achieved by consuming cocaine.
Richard van Rijn, Purdue University’s assistant professor of medicinal chemistry, said in an interview with The Huffington Post, “We are clearly seeing effects of the combined drinks that we would not see if drinking one or the other.”
A party scene that sets some on edge
UP does not have fraternities or sororities or the kind of partying that flourishes in the Greek system. There are no frat parties, no tailgating. Many members of the UP community, including Gregg, would like to keep it this way.
Hale and Gregg agree that Red Bull seems to be a tool for validation. When there are girls walking around with cooler backpacks, branded speakers are blaring and a major corporate product is essentially setting up your party, it becomes less of a “college party” and more of an “event”.
Hale says that this type of validation doesn’t just benefit the party-throwers, it benefits Red Bull as well.
“Free products, free parties, these are things that Red Bull is doing strategically to build brand loyalty and to manipulate you into thinking that their company is synonymous with what it means to be young,” Hale said. “I think there’s an excitement when you have a company that sponsors people to skydive from outer space and to build crazy contraptions and have fun in kind of this YOLO culture. Red Bull typifies the YOLO dream.”
But Trostle says he doesn’t think Red Bull’s involvement influences UP’s party scene significantly.
“Honestly, I don’t think they really added or took away anything,” Trostle said. “It’s still going to be a party regardless if there was free Red Bull there or not. Maybe more people would drink vodka but that was probably it.”
College students aren’t the only demographic the brand targets. Red Bull is growing in popularity in the middle age demographic. Wings often target business men and women on their “missions,” as well as athletes.
Neither Gregg nor Hale are fond of the avenues in which such brands solicit their products to college students. Gregg has kicked Red Bull off campus numerous times and Hale often sends solicitors like Red Bull, Domino’s and Yik Yak to Public Safety when they pop up around Tyson and Haggerty.
Hale says that while kicking solicitors off campus, even if they are students themselves, might be agitating, it’s the party scene Red Bull incentivises that poses a real threat.
Hale pushes to create a different type of social culture on UP’s campus, one that he finds to be more conducive to sending functional young adults into the world.
He fights annually to incorporate alcohol into HagTy events because he believes it’s important to show of-age college students how to drink socially and responsibly. He says that’s why he gets frustrated every time he hears about a wild party complete with Red Bull speakers and alcohol poisoning.
“That kind of stuff is annoying but we can’t police the world,” Hale said. “My goal is just for students to become healthy 21, 22-year-olds and transition into life after college in a healthy way with an adult perspective on the world.”