Vitaminwater 'Hangover' Remedy?

New campaign hints at brand's power without actually making claim
ATLANTA -- The new ad campaign for Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater hints at a use for enhanced waters and sports drinks that is part of conventional wisdom among many college students and young professionals: hangover relief.

The ads debuted during the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, and according to a Wall Street Journal report, are part of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola's effort to revitalize the brand, which it bought for $4.1 billion in 2007. After a decade of fast growth, Vitaminwater's sales volume slipped 22% last year, the report, citing Beverage Digest, as price-conscious consumers traded down to tap water and, in some cases, sodas.

One of the new spots, called "Epic Night," features a young male character getting knocked in the head with a hammer, while a voiceover asks, "Have you ever woken up on the wrong side of the bed, minus the bed? Your brain's throbbing, and your face is in a pile of nachos?"

The voiceover goes on to assert that Vitaminwater's purple "Revive" flavor has B vitamins and potassium, and will help rehydrate you after "these apparently epic nights."

Matt Kahn, Vitaminwater's head of marketing, pointed out that the ad never says the young man has been drinkingthumping club music and the mysterious appearance of a horse and buggy aside. "He's just had a big night," Kahn told the newspaper. "You can take away from that what you wish."

Vitaminwater similarly skirts a claim in a spot called "Strong Man," in which its pink "Power-C" flavored Vitaminwater gives a boost to a pillow-headed character wrapped in a blanket on the couch. "Player," says the voiceover, "You ain't strong when you're whining about, 'Microwave me some soup, baby'."

Is the guy sick? "He's sluggish," Kahn said. "We're not saying Vitaminwater cures anything," he added. "What we are saying is there are all sorts of situations where you need and want nutrients and hydration."

In both ads, Vitaminwater is tapping into the idea that it is good to replenish fluids and nutrients, no matter the reason for losing them, said the Journal.

Mass retailers sometimes display enhanced waters or sports drinks beside hand sanitizers and thermometers during cold and flu season. Convenience stores regularly ring up bottles of sports drinks alongside cases of beer, the report said.

Alcohol researcher John Brick said there is some science behind the idea that drinks like Vitaminwater improve hangover symptoms such as malaise, weakness and headache. Some sugars help metabolize alcohol, and ingredients such as potassium and electrolytes help re-establish healthy body function, he added. "The key is to rehydrate," Brick, author of The Doctor's Hangover Handbook, told the paper. "If you're drinking Vitaminwater or plain water or Gatorade or Alka-Seltzer, those are all going to be helpful."

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in at least three cases, has brought complaints against companies touting unproven hangover cures in ads, Rich Cleland, assistant director of the FTC's advertising-practices division, told the Journal. He declined to comment on the Vitaminwater ads. "Three college guys in a dorm saying it cured my hangover is not science," Cleland said.

Kahn said the Vitaminwater ads were cleared by Coca-Cola's scientific and regulatory division.

The Vitaminwater campaign is a departure for the brand, which is best known for its testimonial spots featuring celebrities like rapper 50 Cent, an early investor and namesake of the "Formula 50" flavor.

The new spots, designed by Venice, Calif., sports-marketing firm Zambezi, play down celebrities, though they are voiced by comedians Danny McBride and Marlon Wayans. Kahn said the ads aim to replicate in picture and sound the cheeky language in the fine print on the product's bottles.

The campaign also includes three coming TV ads, online videos, billboards and a new metallic bottle label with a "nutrient matrix"an enlarged box highlighting specific vitamins and minerals in the product, in addition to the "Nutrition Facts" panel required by regulators, said the report.

Coca-Cola would not tell the Journal how much it is spending on the campaign, but said it represents a major push. Coca-Cola spent more than $60 million in both 2008 and 2009 to promote the Vitaminwater brand, according to the report, citing an ad-tracking company owned by WPP.

This is not the first time Vitaminwater has touted itself as a morning-after aid, the report said. Last year, the brand's Canadian unit sent influential bloggers samples of Vitaminwater accompanied by some findings from a drinking survey ("47% of Canadians won't give up drinking, even if it means we'll be hugging the porcelain god the next day").

A spokesperson for Gatorade, which dominates the sports-drink niche, said Gatorade does not advertise itself as a cure for ailments, even in a tongue-in-cheek way. "We are focused on athletes and fueling athletic performance only," she told the paper.

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