Watchdog bans Red Bull ad for suggesting energy drinks can beat driver fatigue after seven hours on road

Article by Dominic Powell /
Smart Company /
May 8, 2017 /
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Energy drink manufacturer Red Bull has taken down an advertisement after complaints to the Advertising Standards Board accused it of being “irresponsible and dangerous”.

The advertisement depicts an in-car GPS system issuing voice directions to a driver before yawning. The driver then questions how a GPS system can be tired.

The system then responds, saying it’s tired because it couldn’t stop for a Red Bull energy drink like the driver had done, and that they have been “driving for seven hours”. The advertisement ran as both a radio ad and an online ad served through services like music streaming platform Spotify.

“I believe this ad is promoting the use of energy drinks over safe driving practices. Driving while tired is incredibly dangerous to the whole community and an energy drink is not sufficient to keep suitable awareness and reaction times after seven hours of driving. The ad is suggesting the opposite and this is a very irresponsible and dangerous message,” wrote one complainant.

“The ad implies that if you consume Red Bull, you can drive for seven hours straight. This goes against all the police community messages about Stop & Revive every two hours. Particularly poor timing given that it is broadcast during the school holiday period.”

Similar complaints were also levelled against the version of the advertisement which ran on Spotify, accusing the ad of “promoting unsafe driving practices”.

In a response to the complaints, Red Bull defended the ad on the grounds an “anthropomorphic car satellite system” was “absurdist”, and the advertisement should not be taken literally.

“To any reasonable person, it is clear that the anthropomorphic car satellite system is imaginary. A reasonable person would clearly conclude that the advertisement is not to be taken literally as a car satellite navigation system could not actually be tired,” the company said in a response.

“Moreover, the absurdist implication that a car satellite navigation is tired reinforces road safety messages as it reminds consumers that a break is required, which in fact the human character in the advertisement has done.”

Additionally, Red Bull rejected claims the advertisement depicted unsafe driving practices, as the driver in the ad is said to have “stopped on the way” in order to have an energy drink, which the company claimed “aligns with responsible road safety messaging”.

However, despite its defence, the company took down the ad after receiving the complaints prior to the advertising standards board’s ruling. It immediately ceased the broadcast of the ad in order to “ensure that there is not even the smallest risk of further offence”.

ASB rules the ad is contrary to prevailing community standards

Advertising expert and academic at the University of Melbourne Lauren Rosewarne told SmartCompany Red Bull’s size as a company means they were unlikely to be unfamiliar with Australian advertising guidelines, and she believes the choice to take the ad down pre-emptively shows the company was aware it was already testing the limits.

“The fact that they were so willing to so quickly withdraw their ad hints to an awareness on their part that they were already testing the boundaries,” Rosewarne says.

“Dangerous behaviour is easy grounds for the ASB to uphold complaints. When commercial media makes light of life-threatening behaviour, community standards rarely side with the advertiser.”

Rosewarne believes that ads showing dangerous driving are on the decline, with most advertisers in Australia being aware of the “disastrous pitfalls” of dangerous driving.

“The fact that Australia has been able to reduce our road toll over the decades highlights a changed public sentiment towards safety, a cultural shift that most advertisers are abreast of,” she says.

In its ruling, the board concluded the ad did display a message of unsafe driving and was against prevailing community standards when it comes to recommended driving times.

“The Board noted that most members of the community are aware of the general advice regarding driver reviver recommendations to have a break after 2 hours of driving,” it said in explaining its decision.

“The view of the majority of the board was that the suggestion of driving for seven hours was strong and that the overall impression was that the consumption of an energy drink was sufficient to overcome driver fatigue.”

“In the Board’s view the advertisement was delivering an unsafe message that was against prevailing community standards relating to driver safety and did depict material contrary to prevailing community standards on health and safety.”

SmartCompany contacted Red Bull but did not receive a response prior to publication.