Looking for a part-time gig in college? Have a passion for marketing? Are you addicted to caffeine? Red Bull’s “student marketeer” college ambassador program has hundreds of openings, and they want you.
For years, Red Bull has recruited college students to spend their free time outside of class going to campus events, handing out caffeine-packed energy drinks on the street, littering cases throughout dorm buildings, and marketing the brand on social media ― all for $16 an hour, according to one student marketeer.
But now, as health concerns around the use of energy drinks among adolescents resurface, are student ambassador marketing programs a good idea?
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week knocked PRIME energy drinks for using YouTube star power to market its beverages to kids, urging the Food and Drug Administration to investigate. But marketing such drinks to teens and other young people is common practice beyond the company targeted by Schumer — and college ambassador programs by Red Bull and others are a prime example.
Mia Knezevic, a rising sophomore at Boston University, said that Red Bull student marketeers are often distributing drinks in the university food courts and study areas; on Marathon Monday in April, the marketeers placed cases of Red Bull around freshmen dorms.
“They’ve definitely been able to make their presence be top of mind for many students,” Knezevic said. She said she had never tried Red Bull until a marketeer dropped one off at her college dorm room during her freshman year when she was 18.
That type of direct marketing of energy drinks to teens should be limited, said Dr. Michael Toce, associate pediatrics physician in the division of emergency medicine and medical toxicology at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“With anything that’s targeting underage kids, there needs to be heightened regulation because their body is still developing, their brain is still developing, and we don’t know what high volume therapeutic exposure to caffeine is going to do to children in the future,” Toce said.
One-third of children ages 12 to 17 in the United States regularly consume energy drinks, according to the National Institutes of Health. Toce said adolescents who consume excessive amounts of caffeine can experience irritability, hyperactivity, concerning appetite suppression, and bad sleep hygiene. The impact on college-age young adults can be negative, too, he said, especially if they end up mixing the caffeinated beverages with alcohol.
“I would certainly worry about the simulant effects of caffeine allowing students to consume more alcohol and be less aware of inebriating effects,” Toce said. “They’ll be more prone to alcohol poisoning.”
In 2010, an 18-year-old college student went into cardiac arrest after drinking Four Loko, a drink that was 12 percent alcohol and contained 156 milligrams of caffeine in a 23.5-ounce can. Schumer was also outspoken back then, calling on the New York State Liquor Authority to ban the product. Today, Four Loko no longer contains caffeine.
Many of the energy drinks on the market today have over 200 milligrams of caffeine, which equates to about a six-pack of Coke. Nonetheless, teens may be influenced by social media personalities and ambassadors to buy the ultra-caffeinated energy drinks that are so “feverishly marketed to them,” in Schumer’s words.
Much of that social media marketing is done through personalities like Logan Paul, a YouTube star with millions of followers, who cofounded PRIME energy. But on a smaller scale, Toce agreed that college ambassador programs simulate the same kind of influence. Brands like Red Bull, Celsius, Monster, and Sway Energy Drinks host student ambassador programs for college students across the United States to market their products to younger generations.
Red Bull, the only company that appears currently to operate college ambassador roles in Massachusetts, currently lists 236 student marketeer job openings across North America on its website, six of which are in Massachusetts: two openings at Boston University, and one each at Northeastern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Suffolk University.
Student ambassadors at local college campuses declined to be interviewed by the Globe on the record, saying that Red Bull does not allow them to speak with reporters and that they did not want to risk being fired.
Colin Riley, the executive director of media relations at Boston University, said the university does not patrol student ambassadors or have a relationship with them, even when they are operating on the school’s private property. Riley said it is up to the city of Boston to police where student ambassadors conduct their job, not the university.
The marketeers are not doing anything illegal, however, and the city did not answer questions about potentially policing students marketing products on college campuses.
BU does not have a relationship with Red Bull’s ambassador program, and Riley said they “don’t endorse it.” Representatives from Red Bull declined to comment on the topic.
The FDA says that 400 milligrams of caffeine is the recommended daily limit for healthy adults, but Simona Lourekas, a pediatric clinical dietitian at Massachusetts General Hospital, said she discourages caffeinated beverages for children, adolescents, and college-age students because these ages are important for growth and development.
Lourekas noted that marketing around energy drinks masks the fact that these products have extreme amounts of caffeine in them, instead emphasizing that they don’t have other unhealthy substances.
“We are seeing a lot of these beverages having lower sugar, but there are still over 200 milligrams of caffeine in them,” Lourekas said. “So people may think a product is healthy or needed based off of that marketing even if that isn’t the case.”
An 8-ounce can of Red Bull contains 70 milligrams of caffeine, more than a can of Diet Coke but less than an 8-ounce cup of coffee, according to the USDA. In comparison, PRIME energy drinks, condemned by Schumer, contain 200 milligrams of caffeine in each 12-ounce can, but are not even the worst offenders. Celsius Heat energy drinks have 300 milligrams of caffeine in 16-ounce cans, and Atomic Coffee Roasters — a local coffee company based in Beverly — packs 350 milligrams of caffeine into a 12-ounce can of cold brew.
Despite recommendations from doctors, teens are still easily able to buy energy drinks at grocery stores.
In the United States, energy drink companies who label their beverages as “dietary supplements” can make their products without notifying the FDA, making it difficult for the FDA to regulate these drinks. Because there is no regulation, Toce believes that it is ultimately parents’ responsibility to oversee what their children and teens are consuming.
“I do think that there is a role for the FDA to limit direct product marketing to children, but with that being said, at the end of the day, the responsibility comes back to parents,” Toce said. “They need to have open and honest conversations with their kids about what they are consuming.”