THE BLOG
10/18/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

5-Hour Energy and 30-Second Deceit

Advertisers frequently trade on the implicit trust we have in medical professionals to sell products for their clients. Recently, an advertisement promoting the consumption of 5-Hour Energy has been running on television. Featuring a non-threatening woman with perfect white teeth and a big smile, it attempts to convey the appearance of medical bonafides.

The woman, who is sitting next to a stack of supposed medical reports on the aforementioned beverage, calmly and kindly explains that the vast majority of doctors that they polled (over 73 percent, in fact!) would recommend a "low-calorie supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements." If you read the above statement carefully, its vague clarifiers and overall lack of substance becomes readily apparent. An obvious example is it does not define the word "healthy."

As the 73 percent is run across the top of the screen a smaller, but no less informative statistic is run across the bottom. It says, "Of all primary care physicians surveyed, 47 percent would specifically recommend 5-Hour Energy for their healthy patients who use energy supplements." So, that original 73 percent is misleading at best and deceiving at worst, depending on who you ask. Not only that, but out of all the doctors that were polled, less than half would recommend 5-Hour Energy, and that was only to patients who were taking "energy supplements" to begin with.

The nice lady then explains that 5-Hour Energy is "used over 9 million times a week." While this may be comforting in some incredibly primitive way (Think: If it is right for 9 million people, how could it possibly not be right for me?), it is up for debate how such a factoid is medically, socially, morally, or culturally relevant for a unique individual.

Lamentably, what the spokeswoman doesn't tell you (but is also written across the bottom of the screen in type so small one would need a magnifying glass and slow-motion replay to read it) is that in fact 5-Hour Energy "contains as much caffeine as a cup of the leading premium coffee" (it is important to note here that they don't define either premium or the size of a "cup"), and "no crash [one of the slogans that appears on the bottle is "no crash later"] means no sugar crash." Unfortunately, the advertisement doesn't specify what type of crash one might expect. However, after ingesting citicoline, tyrosine, phenylalanine, taurine, malic acid, glucuronolactone, and caffeine, one might expect some type of comedown would be inevitable.

In essence, the advertisement attempts to convey that medical professionals support the consumption of 5-Hour Energy, and that it would almost be irresponsible not to take a daily dose. This is inaccurate and misguided, but simply railing against deceitful advertising misses the larger point. Not only is the commercial misleading, but it also does something particularly ugly: It portrays the medical profession, as endorsing the consumption of goods that are unlikely to offer any real health benefits.

It's hard to conclude that 5-Hour Energy and the marketing team that cooked up such a ridiculous -- albeit effective -- TV spot are really the primary ones to blame for misleading the American public (although it would be easy to do so). They are simply doing their jobs. They have a responsibility to their company (which is actually owned by another company: Living Essentials, which is in turned owned by the parent firm: Innovation Ventures) to squeeze as much money out of the American public as they legally can.

The problem is much more pervasive than just a single ad. This isn't the first time that the advertising industry has attempted to trade on the implicit trust and the respect that we often express for medical professionals. Until 1964 (the year the U.S. Surgeon General released the Advisory Committee Report on Smoking and Health) it would not have been uncommon to see a billboard with a picture of a doctor and the words "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," scrawled across the bottom. The disappearance of doctors from cigarette advertisements is probably due to growing awareness and concerns about the health effects of smoking among the public that made trading on trust in medical professionals untenable, rather than regulation of the advertising industry.

Unfortunately, as Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Questionable grammar aside, we as a society invite this type of problem. Another example: The U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world (the other being New Zealand) where it is legal to advertise prescription drugs on television. As long as it is legal to hawk prescription pharmaceuticals via the tube, it shouldn't come as a surprise that corporations will take full advantage. Now, it should be noted that 5-Hour Energy is sold as a dietary supplement and does not require a prescription, but if we allow direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs, we should expect even less fettered regulation of advertising for these sorts of supplements; and this particular advertisement is directly riffing on a tradition of pharmaceutical advertising that goes back decades and continues to this day. It is telling that the commercial ends with the same line we have come to expect from every major prescription drug spot: "Is 5-Hour Energy right for you? Ask your doctor."

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