When Red Bull didn’t give you wings

Created on 20 Mar 2021

Wraps up in 6 Min

Read by 63.2k people

Updated on 16 Nov 2023

"Red Bull gives you wings." - did this ad slogan influence you to try out the drink? Yeah? That's awesome as long as you don't take it literally. And once you do, things can get seriously awkward. That's exactly what happened in the US when a person filed a suit against Red Bull for not giving him 'wings'! Sounds ridiculous? Ya, we know. But it's how it is.

However, that's not entirely the case. You know, the devil's in the details. So, let's dive into this $13 Mn Red Bull fiasco!

But before that, let's have a glance over the company.

A brief about Red Bull

Red Bull is an energy drink offered by Red Bull GmbH, an Austrian private company founded in 1984. It's the brainchild of Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz (it's okay, we also couldn't pronounce it) and Thai businessman Chaleo Yoovidhya. Also, so that you know, the founders are among the top two richest persons in their respective countries.

Besides Red Bull, the company also distributes and markets other drinks like Simply Cola, etc., but Red Bull is the company's forte. The company's revolutionary energy drink Red Bull was originally the Thai truckers' sleep-depriving drink, named Krating Daeng. It was introduced to the European markets in 1987, and the rest is history. Taking the youth by storm, it made its footmark in the US in 1997, and within a year, it had already captured a whopping 75% of the US market! Wotta journey!!

Since then, there has been no looking back. After expanding its markets across 171 countries, the company sold 5.2 billion cans of Red Bull in 2012, thereby making it the world's most-consumed energy drink. And it didn't stop there. In 2019, when the world population reached 7.7 billion, Red Bull sold 7.5 billion cans, meaning almost one can for every person on earth! Shocked? We, too, are!

By the way, if you're aware, you would have known that Red Bull has been famous (or infamous, depending) for its widely popular advertisement -- "Red Bull gives you wings." And that's our matter of discussion today.

The advertisement - a metaphor or a deception?

Source: Red Bull advertisement

So, this is the advertisement we're talking about. Wait, don't tell us, you're also feeling like Red Bull literally meant it gives you wings! No, please.

Basically, this was just a very clever bit of branding technique, indicating high Caffeine content. Red Bull states that a 250ml can of its energy drink contains about 80mg of Caffeine, the same amount as contained in a cup of coffee. And being an energy drink, they charged a premium over a cup of coffee.

Anyway, how does Caffeine relate to wings, you ask? Well, first read this note from regarding the effects of Caffeine -- "Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant. When it reaches your brain, the most noticeable effect is alertness. You'll feel more awake and less tired, so it's a common ingredient in medications to treat or manage drowsiness, headaches, and migraines."

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So, when Red Bull said it "gives you wings", what it basically meant was that it stimulates your nervous system, reduces drowsiness, and makes you feel cool and active. Thus, you feel light and energetic. And it does, isn't it? Many even take it as a lite version of hard drinks! Gosh! So, now you know it didn't literally give you wings. Rather, it is a metaphor (a word that carries a different underlying meaning and not its literal interpretation).

And what did Red Bull plan to achieve, you ask? See, Red Bull's niche target market is the youth, and the youth wants mystery and vigour in all endeavours. Therefore, in a bid to entice the youth, they came up with this brilliant ad. As intended, the plane took off and the result... Red Bull became the most consumed energy drink in the world.

Okay, if this was just a metaphor, where was the deception part? Under what grounds was the suit filed? And who filed it? Well, let's explore.

Benjamin Careathers v. Red Bull North America, Inc.

Benjamin Careathers got no chill! Yes, that's our man. He, joined by others later, filed a case against Red Bull in 2013.

Although we did not attend the court proceedings, we feel Mr Benjamin would have said something like this -- "Your honour, I have been drinking Red Bull for over 10 years. It tastes a slight bit bitter, but that's okay. I don't have any complaints regarding its taste. But my problem is with the wings thing. Your honour, after I drink Red Bull, I don't feel like flying. Don't mistake me for being foolish; I am not taking it literally. I just mean that it doesn't make me feel so athletic and energetic. Oh, and if you think that's my problem, then NO. There is a problem with the advertisement itself. They advertise that a can of Red Bull contains the same amount of Caffeine as a cup of coffee. But facts state that a 250ml can of Red Bull contains about 80mg of Caffeine, which is much less than a smaller 207ml of coffee that contains as much as 150mg of Caffeine. And hence, I think the ad is deceptive and misleading. Thus, the premium paid over a cup of coffee also doesn't make any sense. I ought to be compensated for my expectations and consumption."

Metaphorically put, Red Bull doesn't give you any more 'wings' than a cup of coffee, right?

And the cost-premium bit was also true. For instance, a 356ml cup of premium store Starbucks coffee costs around $1.85 and would contain far more (over 4 times) caffeine than a 250ml can of Red Bull, which costs around $2.19. Eh, gotcha?

In this case, the court ruled in favour of Benjamin and other plaintiffs and, thus, ordered Red Bull a class settlement for all victims. It agreed to pay a total of $13 Mn as compensation to the customers who felt cheated by drinking its energy drink in the last decade. The compensation per victim was a cash payout of up to $10 or two Red Bull products worth $15 combined, with the company handling the shipping charges. This means the higher the number of victims, the lesser the share of compensation of each. And that's how it went.

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The aftermath of the Red Bull case

Though Red Bull stood up to the claim settlement, it didn't admit its wrongdoing. Or so to say, Red Bull still believed in its' wings'. This is what the company officially stated -- "Red Bull settled the lawsuit to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation. However, Red Bull maintains that its marketing and labelling have always been truthful and accurate, and denies any and all wrongdoing or liability."

They underestimated the power of customers, and therefore, they had to cough up another $850,000 CAD in another similar case filed in 2019 in the same compensation structure.

And like Bill Gates says, "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning." This time, they realised and were cautioned. And thus, they changed their ad slogan to "Red Bull gives you wiiings." This was another clever shot, whereby this time, none could sue Red Bull because there won't be any dictionary meaning of 'wiiings' (with 3 i's), while it would still sound like 'wings'! A superb idea, indeed.

Source: Red Bull website

And now you know what's all about Red Bull's $13 Mn fiasco. Yeah?

The bottom line

By the way, Red Bull wasn't the only brand that was dragged to court in such a false advertisement case. New Balance was similarly sued in 2011 for falsely claiming that its toning shoes burnt calories, Dabur was sued in 2017 for the deceptive advertisement of its tal oil doing "dugni tezi se sharirik vikas", L'Oreal was sued in 2014 for misleading customers that its skincare products were "clinically proven" to cause "visibly younger skin in just 7 days", and there were many other such instances.

You see, there is a very thin line separating clever and notorious. And the same works for marketing as well. A clever deceptive marketing tactic may enable a brand to take off, but in the end, if customers catch it, you won't be spared! Because, ultimately, the customer is the only real boss. And as Milton Hershey quotes --

"Give them quality. That is the best kind of advertising."

So, what do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

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Abhishek Sahoo

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Abhishek has a love for numbers and words alike. With a passion for finance and interest in writing, he’s blending both as a Finance Content Writer at Finology. He writes to simplify the toughest of the technical stuff for readers and tries to make the reading exercise interesting. He is a CA Final candidate and aims to pursue a management degree from a top-notch b-school.

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