Anti-Viral Ads: 5-hour ENERGY

Advertisements upset me. They seem designed to appeal to the misinformed, uninformed, or gullible; preying upon every emotional and logical weakness they can find. I often find myself insulted on behalf of humanity that the people behind these schemes think so little of humanity. And yet, ads persist, likely because they work on enough of the population to be sustainable (not unlike a virus). For a time I was happy knowing I was hopefully above the sort to be tricked by underhanded marketing, I recently reached a breaking point and wanted to push back against the nonsense. And thus this series was born. Welcome to…

Anti-Viral Ads:
A Regular Critique of Advertising Nonsense

My inaugural post in this series is going to tackle a particularly irksome 5-hour ENERGY® commercial. The only version of the commercial on YouTube includes skeptical commentary peppered with some incredibly misogynistic insults, and the commercial is no longer on the official 5-hour ENERGY® website so I’m going to take a screen grab so you’ll know which commercial I’m talking about without the off-putting audio.

5-hour_ENERGY_commercial

The woman begins,

“We asked over 3,000 doctors to review 5-hour ENERGY®, and what they said is amazing.”

The small type during this statement alone is

All doctors surveyed identified themselves as primary care physicians.

Two surveys were conducted to determine the opinions of primary care physicians regarding energy supplements and 5-hour ENERGY®: 1) an online survey of 503 participants; and 2) an in-person survey by 5-hour ENERGY® representatives of 2,500 participants (50% of those approached). In both, participants agreed to review materials regarding 5-hour energy consisting of label and basic description of its ingredients. Of the 503 online and 2,500 in-person, over 73% said they would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements.

The woman’s next line come straight out of the fine print,

“Over 73% who reviewed 5-hour energy said they would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements. 73 percent!”

More small print:

Of all primary care physicians surveyed, 47% would specifically recommend 5-hour ENERGY® for their healthy patients who use energy supplements.

The woman continues,

“5-hour ENERGY® has 4 calories, and is used over 9 million times a week. Is 5-hour energy right for you? Ask your doctor. We already asked 3,000.”

The commercial ends with a smug look, and some standard legal disclaimers including,

“These statements have not be evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

So that was the commercial. Let’s break it down with the skeptical eye.

My first big pet peeve is when commercials say “over” or “nearly” followed by a number. Over 3,000 in this case means 3,003. The same thing happens with “over 73%,” except this time we’re not even told what the real number is in the fine-print. I usually just assume this means that the real number was 73.33503258% or something like that, so they say “over” because they can’t say 74%. I don’t know if that’s how advertisers think, so feel free to inform me and the other readers in the comments if you have some insight.

Also, if you read the fine print, only 47% of physicians, who were self-identified by the way, recommend 5-hour ENERGY®, 73% refers to energy drinks in general. And the recommendation only goes to healthy patients that already use energy drinks, which amounts to saying, “If you’re going to take energy drinks, why not a low calorie one?” So the endorsement is actually just for low calorie habits when consuming things that aren’t actually food, which makes me wonder what the other 27% of physicians are telling their patients.

If any of the readers here are physicians I would love some insight into how often you get asked to participate in surveys like this and how you handle people trying to get you to endorse things without actually endorsing them.

The commercial, which has already employed the argument from authority, then goes for the argument ad populum by letting you know that their product is already used over (yes, that over word again) 9 million times a week. Let’s assume that an average drinker has one 5-hour ENERGY® a day for each work day, that’s 1.8 million people which is about 0.57% of the population from the United States. I find that the argument ad populum works better when something is actually popular.

They end by suggesting that potential users ask their doctor. I have to admit that this is a good suggestion, there are plenty of medical reasons to avoid caffeine so a discussion with a physician isn’t a bad idea. However, phrasing it the way they did as to sound like a medical commercial does bug me, because it’s saying right there on the screen that this product is not medicine.

I personally have no opinion of 5-hour ENERGY®. I don’t drink it because I legitimately really like coffee. So please don’t infer that I’m hating on energy drinks, what I am hating on is the disingenuous nature of the commercial. It dances around what the doctors actually said and tries to piggyback on their medical expertise to get people to take a decidedly non-medicinal product. Not cool, 5-hour ENERGY®.

That’s all for this week, see you next week when I try to tear down another example of misinformation vying for your dollars. If you have a suggestion for an ad to tackle, link to it in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

  1. My favorite 5 Hour Energy ad is the one where the guy who plays Henry Francis on MAD MEN is dressed like a cowboy. You can just see his contempt for the product all over his face as he goes through the motions of shilling for it.

    • You’re absolutely right. I did the calculation and though “half a percent” but still screwed that one up. Thanks for the catch! And I went with 314 million for the US population, in case you were curious.

  2. That is the best opening line I have ever read on a post. Suggestion for ads to tackle; Mortein Nature Guard – just the name alone is an appeal to the naturalistic fallacy. Talk about ads that upset me!

  3. My wife and I had these exact same thoughts when we first saw the commercial (I tend to go straight for the fine print). Looking forward to the rest of this series!

  4. You haven’t even mentioned that the terms “low calorie” and “energy supplement” are completely contradictory. Stimulants do not give you energy, they encourage you to use the energy you have.

  5. I am a physician who was approached by a 5-hour energy rep (I’m an endocrinologist not a PCP). He did not inform me he was taking a survey in any way. He told me that five hour energy was a supplement of caffeine and B vitamins. I asked “that’s all, no other herbal stimulants?”. He said, “no, its actually really basic”. He then asked me if I would recommend it to my patients. I said that I don’t typically recommend caffeine, although I find it generally harmless for most people and use it myself. He asked me if I felt better knowing that 5-hour energy did not contain herbal stimulants. I said “yes” and then asked him if his job was to inform me that 5-hour energy is nothing special. He said “exactly!”

    When I saw the commercial, it made more sense.

  6. I’d love to see a post tackling the sonic emitters that supposedly discourage bugs and rodents from infesting a person’s home.