Anheuser-Busch’s Marketing and Labeling of Alcoholic Energy Drink, Spykes, Causes Controversy

Anheuser-Busch introduced a new alcoholic energy drink in January that’s getting a lot of attention from alcohol abuse prevention groups and attorneys general around the country.

“Spykes” is described on an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler’s website as “a great alternative to hard liquor shots. A Spykes pour takes beer up a notch by adding a caffeinated rush and a sweet taste that finishes hot.” Spykes comes in 4 flavors – lime, hot chocolate, spicy mango and hot melons.

What is causing the controversy is the labeling and marketing of the product. In addition to the 12% alcohol content, Spykes also contains caffeine, ginseng and guarana, ingredients associated with popular energy drinks. The 2 oz. bottles of the drink look a lot like nail polish and can be easily concealed. The Spykes website features bright colors, club music and an easy way to instant message your friends about the product.

In a letter to the president of Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc. dated May 10, 2007, 29 state attorneys general (including Maine AG G. Steven Rowe) wrote to “express our serious concern about your company’s promotion and sale of alcoholic energy drinks – alcoholic beverages that contain caffeine and other stimulants and are highly attractive to underage youth.”

The letter addresses the flavors, additives, packaging and focus on Internet marketing as specific ways Spykes seems to be “tailored to the youth palate.” The letter also addresses the risky combination of alcohol and energy drinks, giving the drinker the impression that they can drink more.

Says the letter, “Spykes exhibits all the indicia of a youth-oriented ‘starter drink,’ while posing the additional risks that arise from combining energy drinks with alcohol.” The attorneys suggest that, at a minimum, Anheuser-Busch should include a warning on the Spykes label regarding these risks, while also making the containers large enough to include a legible warning and deter concealment by underage youth.

While the letter talks about youth in general terms, the packaging seems to clearly be more appealing to young girls and women. Here are some interesting findings regarding teenage girls and drinking from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University:

  • Nearly three times as many teens (43%) who say their parents wouldn’t particularly disapprove of their having one or two alcoholic drinks nearly every day report current alcohol use compared to teens who say their parents would strongly disapprove (15%).
  • Drinking before the age of 15 quadruples the likelihood of becoming alcohol dependent.
  • Drinking before the age of 21 more than doubles the likelihood of developing alcohol-related problems.
  • Teenage girls who drink frequently are almost six times more likely to attempt suicide than girls who never drink.

Read more and view the letter at the Join Together website.

Update: As this blog post was written, Anheuser-Busch announced that they will stop producing Spykes. Read more.