Coca-Cola for Culture Jammers

Admit it: You've always wanted to crush a human skull with your bare hands. This week, you won't need to. You can simply taste how that would feel thanks to Brawndo, a new powerful energy drink from San Francisco.

Billed as "The Thirst Mutilator," 2.4 million bright-orange 16-ounce cans of Brawndo will soon appear in chain convenience stores, representing both the nadir and the zenith of pop culture. Brawndo's viral video ads proudly proclaim its skull-crushing prowess and its "five kinds of sugar!," while its nutritional label reveals 350 milligrams of caffeine per can, making it as strong as five cans of Mountain Dew. "It's like having sex with a tractor trailer in a parking lot!" the ads shout.

The person behind this guarana-fueled abomination is Pete Hottelet, a 29-year-old art director for Swivel Media in San Francisco. Brawndo was inspired by Mike Judge, the creator of Office Space and Idiocracy, his 2006 box-office bomb turned-cult-smash. Starring Luke Wilson and set 500 years from now, Idiocracy parodies the present by fast-forwarding to a hypercommercial future run by dolts who've bred any intelligence out of the human race. Professional wrestlers run the White House. Starbucks offers hand jobs. Meanwhile, beverage leviathan Brawndo owns the Food and Drug Administration, and farmers pour the drink on their crops because advertising dictates: "Brawndo's got what plants crave!"

Wilson's character saves the future by convincing its starving citizens that he can talk to plants, and that they actually crave water, not cracked-out Gatorade. Cue cultural renaissance.

Stupid? Yes, but if people vote with their dollars, Idiocracy's $10 million in 2007 DVD sales make Brawndo a bigger grassroots contender than Ron Paul.

"It was just one of those movies that first time you saw it, like The Big Lebowski or Office Space, that really stands out as being just genius," Hottelet says. "We saw it and we were just like, 'We totally have to do this drink.'"

This was in early 2007. Hottelet had some experience marketing parody products with Sex Panther cologne from Anchorman, so he asked lawyers at 20th Century Fox for Brawndo's licensing rights. Fox granted those rights (with a cut for director Judge) ten months later. Hottelet, his wife, Wendy Fairly, and their company, Omni Consumer Products (whose name is derived from the dystopian megacorporation in Robocop), then turned to Redux Beverages, the makers of notorious energy drink Cocaine.

Cocaine's parent company is led by Jamey Kirby, a former computer engineer who gained notoriety when the FDA forced a recall of his 2007 marketing sensation. "With our irreverent attitude and the way things have happened to us, how could we not take on Brawndo?" he says.

For the drink, Redux' taste engineer came up with a tart lemon-lime flavor like Gatorade with a kick, and Kirby contracted the Seven-Up beverage company to make 10,000 cases (240,000 cans) of the liquid ectoplasm. Thanks to the hilarious 60-second video ad by Mark Little of the Canadian comedy group Picnicface, nearly all the stock sold in the two weeks since Brawndo's online debut Nov. 30.

Hottelet was only a little surprised. "[Store owners] get that 'Oh, another energy drink' look on their face; the market is just so saturated," he says. "But you pop open the can — it's like nuclear bright green."

Indeed, numerous pourings of the drink at SF Weekly caused looks of horror and exclamations of "Holy shit!" followed immediately by people insisting, "I'm not putting that in my body." Yet their taste buds said otherwise.

Brawndo's aggressive, tart-sweet avalanche fizzes with carbonation, leaving a chemical aftertaste — probably from its three types of sweeteners. Dextrose, acesulfame potassium (200 times sweeter than sugar), and sucralose (marketed as Splenda, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar) counteract the 40 percent of your daily sodium allowance in each can. Mmmm, electrolytes.

This week, cases of Brawndo ship to an increasingly energy-drink-crazed, obese America. How do its creators feel about propagating the idiocracy?

"I think Mike Judge was trying to portray the world as it is today," Kirby says. "He set it in the future so as not to insult as many people. In reality, it is here today. The overcommercialism is here. What we did with Cocaine and Brawndo is the epitome of Idiocracy."

Hottelet is equally self-aware, which means they both aim to profit from what is essentially their subversion and critique of capitalism. Culture-jamming now has its own Coca-Cola. "It's time people understand that water is for the toilet, and Brawndo is for plants," he says, quoting the film.

 
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