Dragon Soop Venom
Corinthian Brands (CBL) Ltd
“NIADA is the alliance which facilitates co-operation among voluntary and community sector organisations supporting those affected by alcohol and drug use, and their families. We as a collective membership group wish to submit a complaint about caffeinated alcoholic drinks.
As an alliance, we have concerns around the drink ‘Dragon Soop’ and those similar. We at NIADA believe that this drink breaches numerous rules stated in the code of conduct including the Alcoholic content, Strength, Appeal to under 18s, Popularity, Anti-social behaviour and Sexual Success. Dragon Soop and other high caffeinated drinks such as ‘Screaming Devil’ and ‘Four Loko’ all raise our concerns as they have such high content of alcohol as well as caffeine and are heavily popularised and consumed by young people. Following a number of focus groups and consultations with young people we believe Dragon Soop to be the more popular drink of choice, so wish to move forward with an official complaint.
Dragon Soop breaches the alcoholic content code outlined on the website that ‘the alcoholic nature of a drink should be communicated on its packaging with absolute clarity’ and we believe this is not the case. While the drink cans do state that they are 8% alcoholic content, this is marked at the bottom of the can, and initial advertising is perceived as an energy drink. NIADA members ran several focus groups with young people, both males and females of a range of ages, regarding Dragon Soop. The feedback we received highlighted that parents are unaware the drink contains alcohol and young people are choosing the drink for its high alcohol hit with potentially dangerous outcomes.
We believe the strength of the drink is breached as a standard 500ml can of Dragon Soop contains 4 units of alcohol. The National Health Service (NHS) recommendations for adult men and women is not to exceed 14 units of alcohol per week and to spread this over 3 days (NHS, 2018). One day of drinking 3 and a half cans exceeds this limit for adults, and we know from our focus groups young people drink more than one can in one sitting. One 17-year-old male fed back vomiting for hours after consuming 9 cans.
The high strength content encourages binge and excessive drinking and leads to irresponsible behaviour as most young people drink more than one can breaching the anti-social behaviour code of conduct. The high caffeine intake along with the high alcohol content masks the effects of drunkenness. Hence, young people don’t realise how intoxicated they are, which can lead to becoming unwell and engaging in risky behaviours.
Appeal to under 18s
We strongly believe that the drink breaches the under 18 code of conduct that ‘A drink, its packaging or promotion should not have a particular appeal to under-18’. Dragon Soop appeals to under 18s as the cans are very brightly coloured, have cartoons images and come in 12 different fruity and juice-like flavours that young people would enjoy and want to drink.
In addition to this, the drink can easily be purchased from the website https://www.dragonsoop.com/
Upon access to the page, it asks customers to enter a date of birth which can easily be construed. The drink cans are sold at £2.99, so are very clearly marketed to under 18s as they are so cheap with high alcohol content. Our service users have told us parents think they are drinking energy drinks because of the bright coloured packaging and fruit flavours. Our focus groups highlighted teenagers as young as 14 are drinking Dragon Soop, and reported suffering from heart palpitation and anxiety the next day. Marketing of the Dragon Soop brand is clearly aimed at young people through official merchandise on their website, where they sell a collection of t-shirts, hoodies and run competitions. The current competition is to win a customised Dragon Soop skateboard and a hoody.
Health effects concerns
At NIADA we have serious concerns about these high caffeinated and alcoholic drinks, especially Dragon Soop, as so many young people are consuming this drink usually in large quantities. Our focus group concluded that while young people drink the cans, they also mix them with other substances. One 16-year-old female reported ‘they are sweet and fruity flavours they can be mixed with vodka’.
For young people, both large quantities of caffeine and alcohol can be harmful and both of these together in one drink is very concerning. In addition to this, it is worth noting that one can contains more than double the daily recommended limit of caffeine and can exceed the limit of alcohol units daily.
Alcohol can cause abnormal heart rhythms in the body, high blood pressure and can damage the heart muscle and cause other diseases such as strokes, liver problems and some cancers. Alcohol is also high in calories and can lead to weight gain and health-related issues in that sense (British Heart Foundation). Caffeine in large amounts can also have effects on the body and health, such as increased breathing and heart rate as well as increased mental activity and physical energy. The body can also become dependent on caffeine physically and psychologically and then feel withdrawal symptoms from it (Better Health Channel). Hence, excess levels of both can have adverse effects on health, especially young people.
As a membership group that delivers alcohol and drug services daily to a large number of young clients, we feel the need to raise our concerns around this drink as It breaches numerous codes of conduct. Therefore, we are asking you to consider all points made above and take on board our recommendations to reduce both the alcohol and caffeine content and rethink the marketing strategies of this brand and particularly the impact it has on our young people and their health.”
Further complaint clarification from complainant:
“7.5% is a high level of alcohol compared to other sweet/fruity drinks on the market which are typically around 5%. We feel the bright packaging and marketing of this adds to the popularity of these high caffeine, high alcohol drinks”.
Northern Ireland Alcohol and Drugs Alliance
Under Code paragraph 3.1
The alcoholic nature of a drink should be communicated on its packaging with absolute clarity
Under Code paragraph 3.2(a)
A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way give the higher alcoholic strength, or intoxicating effect, undue emphasis. A product’s lower alcoholic strength may be emphasised proportionately when it is below the average strength for similar beverages. Factual information about alcoholic strength may be given.
Under Code paragraph 3.2(b)
A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way suggest any association with bravado, or with violent, aggressive, dangerous, anti-social or illegal behaviour.
Under Code paragraph 3.2(f)
A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way encourage illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption, such as drink-driving, binge-drinking or drunkenness.
Under Code paragraph 3.2(h)
A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way have a particular appeal to under-18s.
Under Code paragraph 3.2(j)
A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way suggest that the product has therapeutic qualities, can enhance mental or physical capabilities, or change mood or behaviour.
The company’s submission:
Response to initial complaint:
The company began by explaining that the Dragon Soop brand was conceived and developed with due regard to every aspect of the Portman Group Code of Practice. The company explained that the brand continued to be marketed and sold with scrupulous attention to the standards set out in the Code and that meticulous attention was given to its design and packaging to ensure it complied with both the letter and the spirit of the Code. The company highlighted that it was a Code Signatory and had willingly cooperated with the Portman Group and supported its principles and aims.
The company explained that in 2015, Dragon Soop was fully investigated by the Independent Complaints Panel (Panel) under Code rules 3.2(f) and 3.2(h) which it found to not be in breach. The company highlighted that it had received a letter from the Chair of the Panel that there had not been any breach of the Code and that the decision was final.
The company then explained that in its other formal submission to the Wicked Watermelon complaint, the company regarded the 2015 Strawberry and Lime case as having set a precedent and was therefore perplexed and disappointed to find Dragon Soop subject to another formal investigation. The company pointed out that it seemed that the Chair of the Panel had decided that the 2015 Strawberry and Lime case did set a precedent and had stated that the case against Strawberry and Lime would not continue despite the complaint capturing the entire product range. The company stated that the Chair’s decision was significant because whilst the 2015 Strawberry and Lime complaint was about the old packaging, this decision meant that the new and current packaging for Strawberry and Lime had been exempted. The company stated that if Strawberry and Lime was exempt for the reasons stated above by the Chair, then the entire range should also be exempt as there was only a small difference between the various flavours which was the colour of the can. Additionally, the difference between the old and new packaging of the Dragon Soop range was only minor.
The company then explained that its business had been adversely affected by the delays and uncertainties related to the Wicked Watermelon complaint brought by a member of the public, and which the company had taken great pains to answer in depth and with significant detail. However, that case had been delayed so that a further case brought by NIADA could be considered alongside it.
The company stated that a company, whether it be a Code Signatory or member of the Portman Group, should be able to trust that a ‘final’ decision was final. The company explained that should the same product be subject to complaints of the same nature on more than one occasion, businesses would find it impossible to make medium to long-term planning and investment decisions.
The company stated that it had respect for the work of specialist organisations like the Northern Ireland Alcohol and Drugs Alliance (NIADA) and supported the work it did to aid and educate the often vulnerable, under-privileged young people who were addicted to immoderate and dangerous behaviour with regard to substances and alcohol. However, the company stated that NIADA’s focus was narrow and specialised and its evidence that had been taken solely from its work with this particular group was not impartial.
The company stated that NIADA had made a number of unreliable observations, incorrect contentions and factual mistakes that the company wished to comment on.
Firstly, the company highlighted that NIADA had stated that it wished to submit “a complaint about caffeinated alcoholic drinks”, but that the organisation had only singled out Dragon Soop from a group of other caffeinated alcoholic drinks. The company stated that the organisation had done this based on the unscientific basis that Dragon Soop is what NIADA called “the more popular drink of choice.”
The company then analysed the research sample group of caffeinated alcoholic drinks consumers which had been carried out by Dunlewey Addiction Services. The company stated that this group was unrepresentative of the demographic in the UK. The company stated that from the evidence supplied, the research sample was limited to one single focus group ranging in age from 11 to 25, although NIADA had mentioned that there were others which it had not supplied as evidence. The company stated that this group solely consisted of people with an acknowledged history of addictive behaviour and alcohol abuse and that it was unrepresentative of Dragon Soop’s adult target market of 18- to 30-year-olds. The company also noted that the research had been carried out in May 2021, a year before the complaint was made. The company questioned why it took a year to submit the complaint, particularly given the timing of the other complaint made by a member of the public against Wicked Watermelon, which the company had responded to but remained unresolved.
The company then addressed some points of accuracy and stated that Dragon Soop did not “breach the alcoholic content code outlined on the website” as highlighted in paragraph four of NIADA’s letter. The company also explained that Dragon Soop did not contain 8% alcohol as stated in paragraph four of NIADA’s letter but that it was 7.5% ABV. The company further explained that it was incorrect to state that Dragon Soop contained four units of alcohol as it contained 3.75 units.
In the complaint headed paragraph ‘strength’, the company stated that NIADA had cited an unsubstantiated figure to make a subjective and misleading statement where it read “One day of drinking 3 and a half cans exceeds this limit for adults.” The company said that the statement did not withstand rigorous scrutiny. The company explained that the same assertion could be used for any alcoholic drink which was abused by people with alcohol or substance abuse difficulties. The company highlighted that NIADA had not presented any evidence that people abused Dragon Soop more than they would abuse vodka, cider, wine or any other alcoholic beverage. The company stated that this information could not be relied upon, nor was indicative of the wider market, since the participants in the sample group were unable to limit their intake of alcohol.
The company then examined the second paragraph under the heading entitled ‘strength’ which stated that “the high caffeine intake along with the high alcohol intake masks the effect of drunkenness”, which the company stated NIADA had not provided proof of. The company stated that the formulation did not break any of the Portman Group’s rules and that the Portman Group must agree with this because according to an SHS Drinks’ press statement, the Advisory Service had been consulted by the company prior to the launch of WKD X, which was a drink that closely mirrored Dragon Soop, and was destined for major grocery outlets in May 2022.
The company explained that at the time the complaint was made, Dragon Soop had 13 flavours, not 12 as stated by the complainant in the first paragraph under the header “Appeal to under 18s.” The company stated that at the time of its formal submission to the complaint, Dragon Soop now had 14 flavours.
The company then stated that it was factually incorrect to state that Dragon Soop could be “easily purchased from the website,” as stated by the complainant, because it could not be purchased via the Dragon Soop website and had never been available to do so. In response to the complainant’s point about access to the Dragon Soop website (which appeared in paragraph three of the ‘Appeal to under 18s’ section), the company explained that the website used an age check system to act as a gateway that was widely used across the alcohol industry.
The company then explained that Dragon Soop could not be described as ‘cheap’ as stated by the complainant in the ‘Appeal to under 18s’ section of the complaint. The company stated that the product was expensive when considering the cost per unit of alcohol. The company stated that in order for Dragon Soop to comply with Minimum Unit Pricing, which was in force in Scotland and Wales, it should be sold for at least £1.87 per can, but that instead it was sold for £2.99.
The company then addressed the complainant’s claim that Dragon Soop was “clearly aimed at young people through official merchandise on their website, where they sell a collection of t-shirts, hoodies and run competitions.” The company stated that Dragon Soop was marketed strictly in accordance with the Portman Group’s Code and that its website promotions were similar to other alcohol producer websites.
Under the ‘Health effects concerns’ paragraph of the complaint, the company highlighted that NIADA had stated that “so many young people are consuming this drink usually in large quantities.” The company stated that this claim was based on shaky evidence of one small focus group made up of young, often under-age, substance and alcohol abusers. The company stated that there was no proof that Dragon Soop was consumed in greater excess than any other alcoholic drink. Additionally, the company stated that young people who did consume alcohol in great excess might reasonably be supposed to consume any popular alcoholic drink in large quantities.
The company explained that Dragon Soop did not exceed the recommended daily alcohol limit for adults and that current guidelines did not have a daily limit. The company then stated that it wanted to respond to NIADA’s statement that “one can contains more than double the daily recommended limit of caffeine and can exceed the limit of alcohol daily.” The company explained that the common practice of on-trade and informal self-mixing of alcoholic drinks with caffeinated drinks often resulted in a drink that was far higher in alcohol than that of Dragon Soop. The company stated that in contrast to self-mixed drinks, the levels of both alcohol and caffeine were clearly printed on the Dragon Soop can so that consumers could be informed and be drink aware. The company pointed out that Dragon Soop in a 500ml can was 7.5% ABV with 35mg of caffeine per 100ml. In contrast, Red Bull, which was often mixed with vodka (37.5% ABV) in the on-trade had 32mg per 100ml of caffeine. The company also explained that Coca Cola Classic which contained 32mg per 33cl can was also often mixed with vodka at 37.5% ABV. The company stated that vodka had a much higher ABV than Dragon Soop and that Coca Cola and Red Bull had comparable rates of caffeine. The company also highlighted that there were some popular recipes, such as an Irish cream liqueur hot coffee recipe that had both a higher caffeine and alcoholic strength than Dragon Soop.
In conclusion for this section of the producer’s formal response, the company explained that NIADA had incorrectly stated that Dragon Soop ‘breaches numerous codes of conduct.’ The company stated that this was unfounded and noted that no evidence or detail was presented by NIADA to support this misleading statement.
With regard to the research submitted by NIADA in support of its complaint, the company noted from previous Panel rulings the stringent standards that the Panel required when research was accepted. The company stated that it was confident that the Panel would agree that NIADA’s research did not meet these standards.
The company then addressed the specific Code rule breach allegations from NIADA.
In response to rule 3.1, the company stated that it believed it complied fully with this rule and that it took the imperative to make clear the exact nature of the drink seriously so that it could not be confused with an energy drink. The company pointed out that the brand artwork deliberately ensured that the alcoholic nature of the drink was displayed all around and all over the can. The company highlighted that the word ‘alcoholic’ appeared three times on the neck rim and was repeated in the main body of the can in larger, bolder text and that the text ‘Fermented malt beverage’ was also featured. The company stated that the alcohol content ‘7.5% vol’ was repeated five times around the base of the can and that there was a clear and prominent ‘7.5% vol’ on the main body of the can, as part of the brand logo. The company explained that the alcohol content was also featured on the rear of the can, next to ‘500ml.’ In addition to this, the company stated that the Drinkaware website also featured prominently, which did not feature on any soft drink or energy drink brand. The company also highlighted that there was a drink responsibly message on the can. The company then explained that on Dragon Soop Venom, the word ‘alcoholic’ or the ABV was featured in 11 different areas on the packaging. The company stated that all of this displayed a commitment to clarity and that this was shared by very few other popular alcoholic brands.
In support of this, the company submitted a composite image of the top six energy drinks in the UK to illustrate the difference between the presentation of Dragon Soop as an alcoholic brand, and those that were energy drinks, in order to ensure that there was no confusion. The company pointed out that this image showed that the word ‘ENERGY’ was integral to all six of these brands and that it appeared in bold type and capitals so that it was the second most eye-catching word on the cans, second only to the prominence of the brand name. The company explained that in contrast, the word ‘energy’ did not appear on any of the Dragon Soop cans. The company explained that the use of the word ‘ENERGY’ on the energy drinks was used as a crucial identifier to denote the exact nature of the drinks. The company reiterated that Dragon Soop did not feature the word ‘energy’ at all, and that there were no other cues or any explicit statements which might mislead as to the alcoholic nature of the brand. The company provided a composite image of two competitor products in comparison to Dragon Soop. The company stated that the image would allow the Panel to compare its efforts to communicate the alcoholic nature of Dragon Soop with two highly popular ready to drink brands.
The company then explained that since Dragon Soop had been launched in 2010 there had only been three complaints in the intervening 12 years (the complaint from 2015 which was considered against Dragon Soop Strawberry and Lime, which was found not to be in breach of the Code, and the other two which were currently subject to investigation.) The company stated that this was a remarkably low figure for a brand that sold 13.6 million cans per year.
The company then moved on to address the concerns that the Dragon Soop range breached rule 3.2(a). The company explained that there was a balance to be achieved in relation to this code rule in order to ensure that the alcoholic nature of the brand was clear, whilst not giving the alcoholic strength too much prominence so as to breach rule 3.2(a.) The company stated that it strived to find this balance in its packaging. The company explained that Dragon Soop’s packaging and marketing did not reference its intoxicating effect, and that the company did not allow mention of this by contributors to its social media. The company explained that it did not give undue emphasis to the alcoholic content and that it made sure the design and marketing materials made factual statements which made the alcoholic nature of the brand clear. The company highlighted that NIADA had not provided any credible evidence to back up its belief that Dragon Soop breached this rule. The company noted that Portman Group guidance stated:
“A factual statement that a product contains a particular ingredient, for example high caffeine content, is unlikely in itself to be problematic under the Code.”
“It may be necessary to inform consumers that a product contains certain ingredients, for example high caffeine content, but this must be done in a factual and ‘non emotive’ way.”
The company explained that it did not make health claims for Dragon Soop, nor did it give the caffeine content undue emphasis either visually or pictorially. The company explained that caffeine was mentioned on the can for information purposes in order to ensure that consumers who were sensitive to this ingredient would be in no doubt about the products’ contents. The company highlighted that nowhere on the can was the word ‘caffeinated’ used without the word ‘alcoholic’ except for the small print on the back which directly warned consumers sensitive to caffeine. The company highlighted that until 2021, no complaints regarding confusion with energy drinks had been received. The company stated that if it did not make the specific alcohol content clear, or reduced the number of times the descriptor ‘caffeinated alcoholic beverage’ appeared on the can, then it might be open to accusations from consumers and Trading Standards authorities of not being clear enough.
The company then addressed concerns that the products breached rule 3.2(b). The company stated that the research provided by the complainant related to one single focus group held in May 2021, a year before NIADA made its complaint to the Portman Group. The company asserted that NIADA did not present any credible evidence that the Dragon Soop packaging or promotional material suggested an association with bravado, violent, aggressive, dangerous, anti-social, or illegal behaviour. The company stated that the complainant made an entirely subjective statement.
The company stated that NIADA could not claim to have knowledge of what ‘most young people’ did, as its day-to-day work and research was conducted with a very specific group of young people, all of whom had serious alcohol or substance abuse issues. The company explained that this research group could not in any way be seen to be representative of the population as a whole. The company argued that any extrapolations about the behaviour and attitudes of the wider population based on research carried out solely with this group would be skewed, misleading and far from impartial.
The company stated that NIADA seemed to make the general case that high strength alcohol in and of itself caused anti-social behaviour. However, the company stated that if this was true, a well-known vodka brand with a 37.5% ABV would be far more likely to cause excess drinking and anti-social behaviour than Dragon Soop at 7.5% ABV.
The company then addressed the concerns that the products breached rule 3.2(f). The company highlighted that the complainant had not provided any credible evidence to back up its claim and that this was because there was no evidence to be found. The company asserted that it categorically did not encourage illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption on its can, in its social media content or correspondence. The company stated that it was fully aware of this Code rule and that its designers, media managers and staff took scrupulous care to abide by it.
The company agreed that four participants in the focus group had provided quotes that demonstrated they used Dragon Soop irresponsibly, and for one participant, immoderately. However, the company stated that the participants in this focus group were young people with known alcohol abuse problems and so whichever alcoholic drink they chose, it would be likely that they would consume it irresponsibly and immoderately. The company stated that whilst their responses were wholly regrettable, they were not surprising and could not be admissible because they constituted a skewed unrepresentative sample. The company explained that if NIADA had put together a similar small sample group of its clients who preferred other types of alcohol such as rum, vodka or cider, and were then asked about their abuse of that drink, they would likely give similar answers.
The company then turned to address the concern that the product range breached rule 3.2(h). The company stated that the current packaging of Dragon Soop, which only had minor changes, was more scrupulous in its adherence to the Code than the Strawberry and Lime product which was considered by the Panel in 2015 and found not to be in breach of the Code. This, the company stated, was the result of continued effort to evolve any design changes responsibly and in line with the Code.
The company stated that it recognised that while each element of the marketing and design of Dragon Soop was important, the overall impression was the most important element to avoid direct or indirect particular appeal to under-18s.
The company highlighted that compared to many RTD brands and hard seltzers, which were indistinguishable from normal soft drinks and seltzers, the packaging of Dragon Soop clearly and unambiguously signalled its alcoholic status and therefore its suitability to 18s and over only. The company stated that this was achieved not only with the prominence of the words ‘7.5 vol’ but also with its visual cues and overall effect.
The company noted that there were specific cues which had been defined by the Panel as possibly having a particular appeal to under-18s. ‘Bright, high contrast colours’ were an example and the company highlighted that many alcoholic brands featured colour schemes which could be described in this way. In contrast, the company explained that Dragon Soop was specifically designed not to be garish or particularly bright and that the different colours used throughout the range were to denote the various flavours within the range, as was common practice for flavoured alcoholic beverages.
The company stated that it had alluded to the prominence of specific statements about the alcoholic nature and alcoholic content of Dragon Soop above. The company explained that it had deliberately ensured that there were no negative cues to suggest the products were non-alcoholic as there was a total absence of childish imagery, childish fonts, terminology which was specifically popular with children and that whilst fruit flavours were referenced, no fruit imagery was used, which might suggest that Dragon Soop was a fruit drink rather than a fruit-flavoured alcoholic drink. The company stated that this was in contrast to many other fruit-flavoured alcoholic beverages. The company highlighted a couple of other fruit-flavoured alcoholic beverages as showing them to contain fruit imagery on the packaging.
The company then explained that the price of the product at £2.99 indicated it was a premium alcoholic drink as the cost per unit of alcohol actively discouraged under-age drinkers. In comparison, energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster Monarch Juiced energy drinks sold for less (£1.35 and £1.59 respectively.)
The company submitted a composite image to illustrate the point that the use of fruit flavours and colours was widespread across the whole of the RTD drinks market. The company explained that popular flavours such as peach, strawberry and raspberry were widely used by major brands and that watermelon was a popular flavour with adult drinkers.
The company concluded by stating that it was important as a self-regulatory body that the Portman Group continued to be seen by all its members as demonstrably fair and transparent. The company noted that the Portman Group was obliged to proceed against a member company or Code Signatory every time a company was accused of a breach of the rules; regardless of who had made the complaint or however credible the complaint was. The company also explained that the Portman Group proceeded with breach procedure, even if the company had previously been cleared of breaching those rules. The company stated that the Panel’s decisions had far reaching consequences, which could potentially lead to a Retailer Alert Bulletin which resulted in the removal of a brand from all retail shelves.
The company explained that it had responded to the accusations of breaches against Dragon Soop Wicked Watermelon (the subject of a separate complaint) in a timely fashion in January 2022, and that at the time it had explained that the timing of this intervention could not have been more detrimental to its business. Additionally, because of this, a major initiative almost a year in the making was in jeopardy of being cancelled and the financial fall out measured in the millions of pounds.
The company stated that in March 2022, just before the Dragon Soop Wicked Watermelon case was about to be heard, the company was informed that a new complaint against the entire Dragon Soop range had been received and that the Chair had decided to consider both complaints together. The company stated that the Code Secretariat had explained that because Strawberry and Lime had been absolved in 2015 of not breaching any part of the Code, it would not be investigated further. The company asserted that since the labelling, alcoholic content, design and marketing was consistent across the range, it must set a precedent for the rest of the range. The company explained that it now found itself in the situation where both cases would not be resolved until late July 2022, or even later and that this had done inestimable damage to the company and the brand plans.
The company then highlighted that in the interim, with the future of Dragon Soop in limbo, SHS Drinks had declared in the trade press that in May 2022 it was launching WKD X, which it said closely mirrored Dragon Soop with an almost identical offering. The company highlighted a quote from the article that stated that WKD X “was developed in conjunction with guidance from industry watchdog the Portman Group.” The company stated that it understood it was against Portman Group rules for SHS Drinks to suggest that the Portman Group had endorsed its brand in this way, even when a producer had consulted with the Portman Group’s Advisory Service prior to launch. The company stated that it understood that Portman Group Code rules prevented disclosure of advice given by the Advisory Service. However, given the comment printed in the article that the “onus on getting the responsibility right” had been noted by WKD, the company stated that it was hard to imagine that SHS Drinks would have gone ahead with launching WKD X in its current form if the Advisory Service had advised that it breached any aspect of the Code.
The company concluded by stating that despite all of this, it continued to cooperate with the Portman Group in the hope that it would be formally recognised that the company understood its commitments as a Code Signatory and kept them, and that it did not breach the naming, packaging and promotion rules of the Portman Group Code.
The Panel’s assessment:
The Chair opened the case by providing an explanation of procedural background and discussed this with the Panel. The Chair noted that all complaint cases under the Portman Group’s Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks Code (Code) were considered by each product stock-keeping-unit (SKU) and only applied to the product SKU subject to complaint. The Chair understood that the system had been designed to partially protect alcohol producers so that entire product ranges were not simultaneously ruled upon, and also supported the Panel’s approach that the overall impression of a product would always be considered and that this was dependent on a different product which could, for instance, be affected by a change in flavour, colour palette, artwork and size and presentation of packaging which could vary in a SKU range.
As further background to the case, the Chair explained that a case against Dragon Soop Strawberry and Lime had previously been considered by the Panel in 2015.The Chair explained that the case had not been upheld under any rule in the Fifth Edition of the Code and that because of this precedent, the Chair had ruled that the Strawberry and Lime product would not be considered by the Panel in 2022, despite the fact that a complainant had raised a complaint about the entire Dragon Soop range. Whilst the discussion would focus on the Dragon Soop Venom case, the Chair asked the Panel to note the relevant precedent that had been set in the 2015 Dragon Soop Strawberry and Lime case whilst also noting the difference between the two products.
The Chair discussed the criteria that all complaint cases were subject to under Informal Resolution and referenced clause 5.11 of the Code and explained the rationale of why the case had been subject to formal investigation, despite the 2015 Strawberry and Lime precedent. In addition to the product artwork and flavour being different to the Strawberry and Lime version, and therefore defined as a different product, the Chair explained that the Informal Resolution criteria meant that if a case was not clear cut, a company did not offer to address the potential issue and it was potentially not required to be amended or withdrawn (clause 5.13), then the case would need to proceed to full investigation by the Panel. The Chair reiterated that this did not necessarily mean that the product was therefore problematic, but rather that it did not meet the necessary criteria to be resolved under Informal Resolution.
The Panel then discussed the focus group research that the Northern Ireland Alcohol and Drugs Alliance (NIADA) had submitted as part of its complaint, and which had been conducted by Dunlewey Addiction Services. The Panel noted that the evidence consisted of one page of selected quotes from eight vulnerable people and that no information had been provided to explain whether the research had been conducted in line with qualitative research principles from the Market Research Society and that the research did not outline the methodology, provide details of what questions had been or detailed the composition of the focus group. The Panel also noted that the focus group only consisted of eight participants and that those individuals comprised a vulnerable group with addiction history. The Panel noted the producer response and agreed that the group could not therefore be considered to be reflective of wider UK society. The Panel also considered that the quotes that had been submitted as evidence in the focus group related to how the product was being consumed and misused by some young people, and that the discussions did not focus on how the product packaging or marketing caused or encouraged this behaviour. In addition to this, the Panel also noted that the quotes did not support the assertion that the product did not clearly communicate its alcoholic nature as participants clearly knew what they were drinking and had been seeking out alcohol to consume. The Panel therefore concluded that whilst the work of NIADA was important in helping those with alcohol and drug addiction, and that the Panel was not unsympathetic to these aims, the focus group discussion was not scientifically sound as there was no evidence that qualitative research principles had been adhered to. Finally, the Panel also noted that alcoholic energy drinks were a legal product in the UK and that it was not within the remit of the Code, or by extension the Panel in its application of the Code, to address the concern that the products contained caffeine and alcohol and had potential health effects.
Code rule 3.1 The Panel then moved on to discuss Dragon Soop Venom against Code rule 3.1. The Panel noted that the top of the can stated that it was a caffeinated alcoholic beverage and that this was repeated above the Dragon Soop brand name on the front of the can. The Panel also noted that the ABV was displayed prominently on the front of the can and repeated around its base, and that this was set against a black background which made it clear to consumers that the product contained alcohol. The Panel then considered the back of the can and also noted the prominent ‘7.5% vol’ displayed on the back, along with a drink responsibly message, pregnancy warning logo, unit content, UK Chief Medical Officers low risk drinking guidelines, signposting to Drinkaware and a logo which stated that the drink should not be consumed by under-18s. Therefore, when considering the overall impression of the product under rule 3.1, the Panel concluded that the positive alcohol cues on the Dragon Soop Venom product clearly communicated its alcoholic nature with absolute clarity and found that it did not breach rule 3.1.
Code rule 3.2(a) The Panel then moved on to discuss Dragon Soop Venom against Code rule 3.2(a). The Panel noted that the product repeated the ABV ‘7.5% vol’ on the front of the can, around its base and that it was repeated on the back. The Panel also noted that the strength of the product was quite high, in comparison to the average 4.6% ABV strength of RTDs as referenced in the Portman Group’s guidance on this Code rule. However, the Panel noted that the communication of the product’s alcoholic strength had been conveyed in a factual and proportionate way and noted that there was nothing on the can that placed undue emphasis on the product’s higher alcoholic strength or intoxicating effect. The Panel therefore concluded that Dragon Soop Venom did not breach rule 3.2(a).
Code rule 3.2(b) The Panel then moved on to discuss Dragon Soop Venom against Code rule 3.2(b). The Panel considered the dragon on the front of the can. The Panel acknowledged that there might be instances where dragons were used in popular culture to suggest danger and noted that the can featured claw marks on the front of the can. However, the Panel considered that the illustration of the dragon was a mature single line drawing and that it did not look aggressive. The Panel noted that in comparison to other products from the Dragon Soop range, and the Strawberry and Lime 2015 precedent, Venom was significantly different as it did not indicate a flavour and included additional artwork of a snake baring its fangs in an aggressive manner. The Panel considered that the name Venom had a clear association with poison, which it considered implied that the drink was dangerous to consume and therefore required bravado in order to do so. The Panel noted that the definition of ‘bravado’ was linked to boldness that was intended to impress or intimidate and considered that the repetition of the word ‘venom’ seven times around the top of the can further contributed to the product emphasising that it required bravado in order to drink it. The Panel also discussed the snake on the front and back of the packaging and noted that it was depicted in an aggressive striking stance with its fangs bared. The Panel considered that this also contributed to the overall impression that the product was inherently linked to poison, danger and intimidation, and that it therefore created an association with bravado. Whilst the Panel acknowledged that the product itself did not contain poison, the Panel noted that the product was marketed mainly on the danger and intimidation associated with venom and the aggressive snake imagery, as opposed to a flavour variant, and that the overall impression of the product created an association with bravado. The Panel therefore concluded that the name venom, presentation of ‘venom’ seven times around the top of the can and snake imagery with fangs bared on the front and back of the can created an association with bravado and breached rule 3.2(b).
Code rule 3.2(f) The Panel then moved on to discuss Dragon Soop Venom against Code rule 3.2(f). The Panel noted that the product contained 3.75 units and that this was below the recommended four units in a single-serve container as per Portman Group guidance. The Panel also noted that the product contained a responsible drinking message and a link to the Drinkaware website. The Panel then considered the rest of the packaging and noted that there was nothing else on the rest of the can that encouraged consumers to drink irresponsibly or immoderately. The Panel noted that the focus group research that NIADA had provided indicated that some young people were drinking Dragon Soop to excess. However, the Panel considered that this did not indicate that this was because the product’s packaging or marketing was encouraging young people to do so and also referred to its previous conclusion on the validity of the research submitted by NIADA. The Panel therefore concluded that Dragon Soop Venom did not breach rule 3.2(f).
Code rule 3.2(h) The Panel then turned to discuss the Dragon Soop Venom against Code rule 3.2(h). The Panel considered that the blue and green colour scheme on the packaging was different to the Strawberry and Lime 2015 precedent but noted that the colours were muted and were not bold contrast colours. With regards to the illustration of the dragon, the Panel noted the similarity compared to the Strawberry and Lime 2015 precedent and considered that the Venom version was still a simple line drawing, was mature in design, was not childlike and so would be unlikely to have a particular appeal to under-18s. The Panel also considered the font of ‘Dragon Soop’ on the front and noted it was set against a busy design and that it was unlikely to have a particular appeal to under-18s. The Panel noted that while the product may have a broad appeal, it did not have a particular appeal to under-18s. The Panel therefore concluded that the Dragon Soop Venom did not breach rule 3.2(h).
Code rule 3.2(j) The Panel then moved on to discuss Dragon Soop Venom against Code rule 3.2(j). The Panel noted that rule 3.2(j) had changed in wording between the Fifth Edition of the Code that the Strawberry and Lime precedent had been ruled under in 2015, and the current Sixth Edition of the Code which had added a new requirement that alcohol packaging and promotional material should not suggest that it could ‘change mood or behaviour’. However, the Panel also noted that the Chair had ruled that the Strawberry and Lime 2015 precedent was relevant despite this difference. The Panel considered that the product contained a high amount of caffeine, and that the caffeinated nature of the product was repeated around the top of the can, and above the Dragon Soop brand name on the front. The Panel noted that on the front of the can it stated that it contained ‘caffeine, taurine, and guarana’ and that the back of the can stated that it was ‘not suitable for children, pregnant women or persons sensitive to caffeine’. However, the Panel considered that the product did not, directly or indirectly, refer to the enhancement of physical or mental capabilities, or change mood or behaviour, based on the effect that drinking the caffeine would have on consumers. The Panel discussed the overall impression conveyed by the packaging and noted the producer’s response which highlighted that the can did not contain the word ‘energy’ which was a distinct difference to all other non-alcoholic energy drinks. The Panel noted that the back of the can stated that ‘Dragon Soop is a flavoured fermented malt beverage, containing high levels of caffeine (35mg per 100ml) blended with taurine, guarana & delicious flavours, resulting in a truly unique drinking experience.’ The Panel considered that this factually and neutrally explained the ingredients of the product and did not overemphasise the caffeine content or the effect that drinking caffeine and alcohol could have on consumers. The Panel therefore considered that the ‘unique drinking experience’ was in relation to how the product tasted different to other drinks on the market and did not market the product based on any potential therapeutic or mood or behaviour changing capabilities or benefits. The Panel therefore concluded that Dragon Soop Venom did not breach rule 3.2(j).
Company response to provisional decision:
The company noted the Panel’s rationale that Dragon Soop Venom was significantly different to the rest of the Dragon Soop range as it considered that Venom did not indicate its flavour and was marketed mainly on the danger and intimidation associated with venom, alongside the aggressive snake imagery. The company also noted the Panel’s point that Dragon Soop Venom had a clear association with poison, which implied that the drink was dangerous to consume and therefore required bravado to do so.
The company explained that Dragon Soop Venom was responsibly marketed, well understood by its target market and that ‘venom’ was a known flavour to its young adult target market. The company asserted that the Panel’s provisional decision was subjective and based on mistaken assumptions.
The company explained that ‘venom’ was the generic name of a well-known and popular type of cocktail and that it was a favourite among many young adults. The company added that the venom cocktail had been the inspiration for Dragon Soop Venom and that it was well-known across the UK with its target market of 18–30-year-olds.
The company then explained that Dragon Soop Venom had similar dominant flavour notes to its on-trade namesake which included orange, other fruit hints and a touch of the rich, round caramel associated with Bourbon.
The company stated that it was aware of at least three other pre-packed venom drinks and that this was further proof of how well understood the offering was. The company highlighted that the myriad of examples of venom cocktails online was testament to the popularity of the generic drink and the consumer demand for, and understanding of, the offering. The company stated that a Google search for ‘venom cocktail’ produced 8,470 results in 0.41 seconds.
The company then explained that in terms of the overall impression of the product, there was no evidence of confusion about the offering, its marketing, or the can artwork amongst its target audience. The company reiterated that despite selling over 3 million cans of Dragon Soop Venom since its launch in October 2018, it had not received any complaints regarding the Venom name or branding, or any concerns that the brand was associated with bravado or was linked to boldness that was intended to impress or intimidate.
The company then explained that unlike the on-trade or self-mixed venom cocktails, Dragon Soop in a 500ml can made clear the ABV and caffeine content.
The company stated that the name ‘venom’ had numerous associations, and many were the very opposite of the Panel’s conclusion that it was “inherently linked to poison, danger and intimidation”; many were of a positive nature.
The company then highlighted various definitions on Urban Dictionary, which stated that venom could simply mean ‘attention grabbing’, ‘worthy of respect’ and ‘cool’. The company also explained that a ‘venom’ tattoo could be a symbol of empowerment amongst women, as in a specific font it would be read upside down as ‘women’.
The company then turned to address the concerns that the Panel had about the repetition of the word ‘venom’ around the top of the can. The company noted the Panel’s belief that this contributed to the overall impression that the product required bravado in order to consume it. The company explained that the repetition of the word was to make a factual statement that ‘venom’, a flavour which was clearly understood by young adults, was the flavour of the product. The company stated that it was repeated seven times around the top of the can in the same way and same number of times as other flavour varieties of Dragon Soop, which, it pointed out, had been absolved of all breaches of the Code.
The company explained that, taken in conjunction with the well-known flavour of the product, it was reasonable to use the image of a snake, albeit one that took up a small part of the overall area of the can. The company stated that it was natural for a brand to make such a pictorial association when creating the can design. The company pointed out that contrary to the Panel’s assessment, the use of a snake image should not be assumed to be indicative of aggression or evil. The company explained that a Google search of the term ‘snake symbolism in literature’ showed that it was a complex symbol and was one of the oldest and most widespread symbols used in mythology. The company further explained that snakes were a symbol of fertility, healing, guardianship, rebirth or renewal, alongside more negative symbolism.
The company also provided examples of the use of snake imagery for a diverse range of other products, including cars and other alcohol brands.
The company then explained that if a Retailer Alert Bulletin (RAB) was issued against Dragon Soop Venom, which would prevent it from being sold, then every other drink which used the same name and which came under the Portman Group remit should be banned. The company added that if venom drinks were considered to be unacceptable because the name incited bravado and dangerous behaviour, then pubs and bars that also sold venom cocktails should also be prevented from selling them as it would disadvantage the company commercially.
The company then stated that its support of the Portman Group’s Code had been demonstrated by its history of cooperating with the Portman Group over many years.
Finally, the company highlighted that the brand’s target market was made up of 18 – 30-year-olds who loved to socialise and who got their information online from social media apps specifically aimed at this age group. The company stated that the members of the Panel were very different from that of its target market, and that this might be the reason why the Panel interpreted the brand, its offering, the visual cues on the packaging and its language in a wholly different way than its intended consumers.
The Panel’s assessment after company’s response to provisional decision:
The Panel discussed the company’s explanation that “Venom” was a well-known cocktail in the on-trade. The Panel noted that the company had not provided evidence that ‘venom’ was a well-understood flavour by young adults, or how the wider UK market would perceive the name. The Panel noted that web searches revealed that a typical ‘venom cocktail’ contained vodka, a well-known bourbon, a particular blue ready-to-drink alcoholic drink and orange juice. The Panel discussed the content of Dragon Soop Venom and noted that, due to the inclusion of well-known drinks in the on-trade, it was evident that those ingredients were not part of Dragon Soop Venom and that the actual ingredients appeared to differ significantly from those of a traditional “Venom” cocktail In addition to this, the Panel also noted that the product did not state that it was a ‘Venom-flavoured cocktail’, which would have gone some way to indicate that it was based on the on-trade Venom cocktail. The Panel considered that, for the majority of UK consumers, the word ‘venom’, without any qualifying descriptors, would not be widely recognised as a cocktail name in isolation.
The Panel sought to remind the producer that existing drink names in the on-trade did not constitute compliance with the Portman Group’s Code of Practice, as had most recently been demonstrated in the case against Porn Star Martini. The Panel also noted that its considerations could only be in relation to Dragon Soop Venom, as the product subject to complaint, and that it was outside of the Portman Group’s regulatory remit to regulate wholly retailer-led marketing activities.
The Panel then discussed the word ‘venom’ and whether it had any other well-known connotations or meanings. The Panel noted that the company had provided a definition from Urban Dictionary that stated that the word was used by younger people to mean ‘cool’ or attention grabbing. The Panel discussed this online interpretation and considered that, while a minority demographic of the UK population may use the word to mean ‘cool’, the majority of UK consumers would recognise the word to mean ‘poison’ in its day-to-day usage. In addition to this, the Panel also considered it was unlikely that the company intended ‘venom’ to mean cool in the context of the product, particularly when viewed alongside the snake imagery.
The Panel then considered the company’s claim that snakes were not aggressive animals. The Panel noted that the company had provided images of various brands which featured snakes and agreed that snakes were not always aggressive, but that the snake depicted on Dragon Soop Venom was in a clear striking pose with fangs bared. The Panel therefore remained of the view, that in this particular context, the snake depicted was aggressive. The Panel also considered that in comparison to other products from the Dragon Soop range, which the Panel had previously considered and not upheld under any section of the Code, Dragon Soop Venom had a different appearance. The Panel considered that, as pointed out by the company, the other products in the Dragon Soop range also included the flavour variant multiple times around the top of the can. However, the Panel considered that this presentation of the word ‘venom’, alongside the aggressive snake with its fangs bared, created an association with bravado.
Additionally, the Panel noted that Dragon Soop Venom was a relatively high strength alcohol, and a high strength caffeine product, and that while some consumers may recognise the word ‘venom’ to have a different meaning, the word was most synonymous with poison. The Panel therefore considered that as most people would be unaware of the link to the on-trade flavoured Venom cocktail, given the absence of any explicit reference, the name venom in this particular context, and its presentation, in combination with the aggressive snake imagery, gave the overall impression that the relatively high strength alcohol and high strength caffeine product, was being marketed mainly on the danger association with venom, and therefore required bravado to drink it. The Panel therefore concluded that the product breached Code rule 3.2(b).
In summary of the above, the Panel concluded that Dragon Soop Venom did breach Code rule 3.2(b), but did not breach Code rules 3.1, 3.2(a), 3.2(f), 3.2(h),3.2(j) or any other part of the Code.
Action by company:
To be confirmed.