After speaking with a number of people connected to Four Loko — the embattled "alcoholic energy drink" (or caffeinated alcoholic beverage, as it prefers) — it's becoming apparent that the brand has gone to great lengths to cover its tracks on its marketing efforts. Furthermore, what brandchannel found contradicts claims by Four Loko's Chicago-based parent company, Phusion Projects.
As might be expected, the brand has retained some PR heavyweights (Edelman) to assist with what is likely to end up a cautionary tale in the "all attention is good attention" debate. Four's most egregious PR misstep was in stating that the brand makes "a conscious effort to reject the social media marketing tactics" and when that was proven untrue, claiming that it discontined such marketing efforts years ago. Because, as should be well known by every marketer by now, the Internet never forgets.
In response to our look yesterday at the brand's viral buzz, Phusion Projects, through its PR agency, asked for a number of updates. Via its rep, Phusion stated, "our company has taken a unique position and made a conscious effort to reject the social media marketing tactics that other companies embrace – including many of our competitors. There is no company-sponsored 'Four Loko' Facebook page or YouTube channel."
First, the brand's claim that it "rejects… social media marketing tactics" could not be more preposterous. While the brand scrubbed its Fourdrinks.com site of any of its former marketing messages, we obtained a screenshot (below) of a page from the site's former "Four Shots" gallery.
The marketing page clearly encourages drinkers, particularly college students via its on-campus marketing push and a now-vanished Facebook page (more on that, below), to "show us your happy face" by uploading and sharing photos of themselves enjoying Four drinks. Four says these photos will be "immortalized on the Internet" (a prophetic statement, as it turned out). And despite the brand's claims about "Making college campuses safe and healthy environments for learning," the gallery featured in the screenshot features Northwestern University students (one of whom is holding a drink bigger than his head — interesting message when one can is equivalent to up to a six-pack of beer):
Next, Phusion Products' claim that there is "no company-sponsored 'Four Loko' Facebook page" is, at best, questionable. There are several pages dedicated in some manner or another to the drink. Yet one in particular has all the professional sheen of a viral effort.
The info section of the now-vanished "Drink FOUR" Facebook group (taken down last night) reads "An entrant into the fastest growing segment in the alcohol industry, caffeinated malt based beverages, Four was created by three recent college graduates. Four is the first beverage EVER to mix the modern day invigorating ingredients such as Taurine, Caffeine, and Guarana with Wormwood, the active ingredient in Absinthe (http://www.absinth.com), through a proprietary manufacturing process.... For you myspace lovers, check us out at: http://www.myspace.com/drinkfour." That sounds like some random college kid, right?
That's because it's not some random college kid. Phusion is counting on the technical claim that the Facebook page was not "company-sponsored." But what does that mean anyway, since Facebook pages require no investment to set up? We spoke with the creator of that very Drink Four page. He told us that he wasn't just a fan when he set up the page, but that it was set up while he was in the direct employment of Four as a paid marketing rep (not intern) while a student at Northwestern University.
Also, after we found it and contacted the page's administrator, the Facebook Drink Four group page has been taken down, including its "Recent News" section. That sections included one update reading, "If you had the chance to sip some Four at either the Pregame or the Dillo Day parties, check out www.drinkfour.com to see if you're famous. Go to 'Four Shots' then to 'four-tour' and check the two albums out." It's curious that a Facebook page with "no connection" to Four Loko would suddenly disappear once we started asking its administrator some questions. (Screenshot below.)
The MySpace page mentioned on this Facebook page, by the way, was scrubbed in January. As for the brand's YouTube video claims, while Four states that the music videos (some of which you can view here) in question are not "official," they can still reasonably be considered passive viral advertising. If they were indeed unauthorized and the brand objected to the songs' exhortations to drink FOUR and get wasted, Phusion wouldn't have ignored them. We asked Phusion how it responded, and if it had ever "sent any cease and desist or similar requests to any of the videos' creators for misrepresentation?" The company responded with a new statement, but not about the music videos — it wanted to clarify its social media marketing claims:
"Phusion Projects did at one time employ interns that created Facebook pages and the website did have a section entitled 'Four Shots' back in 2005. After that time, Phusion made the proactive corporate decision to discontinue using social media marketing tactics. At that point, the affiliation between the company and the interns was severed, and Phusion politely asked all former interns to delete any Facebook groups. Unfortunately, the company is not allowed to delete Facebook pages themselves, and so a few of these remain out of our control. In addition, Phusion also took down the 'Four Shots' web feature and revised the website to comply with our corporate decision. Since that time, we have continued to follow the practice of not engaging in these tactics.”
Unfortunately (for Phusion), the brand's new statement doesn't mesh with the evidence either. Before it was deleted on Oct. 27, the FOUR Drinks Facebook page, that Phusion now admits it used in a social media marketing scheme, listed a news item "Watch for it on Dillo Day 2008!" The follow up post to that item states that "PHOTOS ARE UP" and "If you had the chance to sip some Four at either the Pregame or the Dillo Day parties, check out www.drinkfour.com to see if you're famous. Go to "Four Shots" then to "four-tour" and check the two albums out. "
Webcache of the Facebook page.
Furthermore, the brand claims it asked the "interns" to shut down pages "at that time" (2005). Yet, the student we spoke with said he worked directly for one of the Four Loko founders while in college. He also noted that he recently graduated and no longer works for the brand.
The company never addressed our questions about its connection to the Four Loko music videos on YouTube. One blog entry from an assistant on the "Four Loko" music video by rapper Fese hints that while Phusion did not sponsor or comission the work, they were very possibly aware of it. One involved party writes the day of the video shoot in July, "Rumor has it there's some interest brewing from the creators of Four Loko."
Our bigger point here — while Four Loko's parent website comes across as a concerned parent, with statements about drinking responsibly rebutting criticism — such as negative media including a Wall Street Journal video and coverage by New York Times (here, here, here and here) and other national media — it's disingenuous to claim it's never engaged in social media or other viral marketing aimed at college kids when it employed on-campus marketing reps who set up Facebook pages on behalf of the brand.
We welcome Phusion's further response, and will update this accordingly when and if we hear back.