Be forewarned. What you are about to read could very easily be characterized as a rant.
Earlier this week, I was driving home from work when I heard a radio commercial for Mountain Dew Kickstart. Similar to the above visual advertisement, the radio spot touted the perfect combination of “dew, juice, and electrolytes.” And, with a substantially quicker cadence and hushed tone, the announcer added “for taste” after “electrolytes” before quickly wrapping up the commercial. As you will note from the above ad, “electrolytes” includes an asterisk which directs the reader to nearly illegible text that states “electrolytes for taste.”
Being the naturally curious and cynical person that I am, I felt compelled to research and analyze why Mountain Dew (or PepsiCo) felt the need to effectively shout “electrolytes” while only whispering “for taste”. And honestly, after looking into the matter further, I can’t think of any good reason other than to intentionally mislead consumers.
My research began with the very basic question of “What are electrolytes?” The answer, physiologically speaking, is pretty straightforward:
Electrolytes are substances that are present in the human body that are essential to the normal function of our cells and organs. They help maintain proper fluid balance and nerve and muscle functioning. The most commonly measured electrolytes are sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. We lose electrolytes when we sweat. Maintaining a health balance of these electrolytes in the body is critical, which is why some experts recommend electrolyte replacement during and after exercise.
Electrolytes have also become a “buzzworthy” concept in health and fitness marketing because strenuous exercise, or exercise in extreme heat, can deplete certain electrolytes below optimal levels. Sports drinks–like original Gatorade–were developed with increased electrolytes for quick electrolyte replacement via liquid consumption during or after strenuous exertion. Thus, people often (wrongly) associate “electrolytes” with health, fitness, and energy. And while “electrolytes” are an important ingredient for many legitimate sports drinks, Mountain Dew Kickstart’s caffeine and sugar levels would make it a nightmare as an actual sports drink for electrolyte replacement. Hence, the “for taste” qualifier.
So why do I think Mountain Dew is being deceptive? All it has done is accurately stated that it contains electrolytes and that they are simply “for taste” and not for some other purpose, right? Well, simply stated, the only conceivable reason to reference electrolytes in a drink like Kickstart is to dupe customers into thinking this drink somehow has qualities associated with health, fitness, or energy that it does not have. You know what other drinks have “electrolytes for taste”? Virtually every other soft drink on the market (including regular Mountain Dew), natural fruit juices, and plain old salt water. Thus, touting the fact that a beverage has “electrolytes for taste” is the equivalent of advertising the hydrogen molecules in water. It serves no purpose other than to prey upon people that simply don’t understand. Shame on you, Dew!
My disdain with advertisements like this range from a disappointed shake of the head to frothing at the mouth with steam pouring out my ears. At certain times, I consider these advertisements to be mildly unethical; at others, I consider them to be maliciuosly predatory. At its most basic and best, marketing is an important function that creates brand awareness and honestly informs consumers about important qualities of products or services. This, in turn, allows the consumer to make educated purchasing decisions. At its worst, marketing is the devil ushering society down the road to a real-life Idiocracy. In an almost frightening moment of prescience, Idiocracy even foresaw the buffoonery surrounding a misunderstanding of electrolytes.
Sadly, this Kickstart campaign is only one example in what appears to be a new normal. I’ve previously posted on ethical issues in advertising, and the lack of a meaningful code for self-regulation or even self-reflection. (See here and here.) As renowned sociologist Jimmy Kimmel demonstrated, we have a generation of “gluten free” converts who don’t even know what gluten is. We have a multi-billion dollar “organic” food industry where there is virtually no evidence supporting the conclusion that “organic” foods are healthier than conventional foods. And we have “greenwashing” where advertisers and promoters “mislead consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” (See here.) These industries are all like extravagant houses built on piles of bullshit–they look good, but you’ll never be able to escape the stench.
As a practical matter, its difficult to do anything about these advertisements with lawsuits because, under current law, it’s generally difficult to win a “technically true, but deceptive nonetheless” claim. That may change in the future, but for now, we’re stuck with self-regulation and the sage advice of attorneys that clear the ads. I implore everyone to look inward and do the right thing.