By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"I do love Hef, though," he added thoughtfully.
The Playboy Energy Drink Tour bus sat outside the Titanic Brewery like a beached whale. A couple of young guys named Scott and Ryan stood next to the coach in the parking lot. They were in charge of the tour and were being interviewed by a reporter for the University of Miami's student newspaper, the Hurricane. The college kid held a full-size notebook, scribbling furiously as his interview subjects described the joys and hazards of life on the road with the Energy Drink Girls.
"It's a great social networking event," Scott explained. Ryan nodded.
The Hurricane reporter, however, was interested in a different kind of social networking. "So," he asked, laying his pen flat on the book, "are you going to let me talk to the girls?"
Scott smiled. "They're changing," he said.
I tried a can of Playboy Energy Drink. It tasted like the rest of them: sweet, tinny, vaguely noxious.
Among the standard ingredients of caffeine and sugar, Playboy includes on its label an ingredient called "horny goat weed extract." I asked Scott about it. "Actually they haven't really decided how they're going to market that yet," he said with a straight face. "People don't really know what the goat weed is."
Ten minutes later, as if answering the call of an unseen Ali Baba, the intrepid young college reporter turned toward the bus as its great black door folded open, and in he went. It was 20 minutes before he emerged, his face plastered cheek to cheek with the largest shit-eating grin I'd ever seen.
Soon I ventured inside. The bus was roomy. A Playboy Bunny clock kept the time, and bottles of hard liquor littered the kitchenette. Two girls sat on opposite black pleather couches. I said hello. Light, innocent conversation ensued, interrupted suddenly when a door in back burst open and out stumbled a third girl, staying upright, it seemed, only with Ryan's assistance.
He helped her into the bathroom. It was time, I figured, to leave the bus. I got up and asked to take a parting picture. Ryan stood between the other two girls, and everyone smiled as I focused the camera.
Just then I heard the bathroom door open behind me as the third girl came out. I watched the eyes in my viewfinder shift to look at their colleague, standing out of my sight. Then I felt hands on my stomach — low on my stomach — and breath as soft as liquid energy across my cheek.
"Ashley," Ryan said, laughing. "Let the man take his picture."
The photo came out fuzzy. Ryan stepped toward Ashley as I moved away to say goodbye to the other two girls.
"Did you like the drink?" one of them asked.
I stared at her, uncomprehending. I babbled but did not answer. They persisted.
"But wasn't it better than other drinks?" asked the other. The words coming out of her mouth seemed to be wrapped in impenetrable pink satin.
"Come on, did you like it better? Just say yes."
I stared blankly.
She took my head in her hands, planting one soft palm in my hair and another under my chin.
"Yes," she said, nodding my head for me.
"Yes," I said. "Yes."
The Playboy campaign marks the next innovation in the world of energy drinks: Why spend time and money developing a product when you can rely on brand name alone? Thus rapper Lil John's Crunk!!! — as much an advertisement for him as an actual refreshment. Some nightclubs have also opted to sell their own, custom-made energy drinks; Club Space, for example, sold Spacefuel, until Red Bull successfully sued the club for dispensing its own product when customers ordered Red Bull.
Turns out it's not hard to DIY. Jason Vigil, co-owner of the Las Vegas-based Xbrandfluids.com, was, like Tizol, lured by the energy drink boom into starting his own company. But he quickly realized how difficult it would be to turn a profit.
"It was just an uphill battle, trying to compete against Monster and Red Bull," Vigil recalls. "It really is a gold rush, and so people think they can get in, have their little niche in the market. But really, for every drink that starts up there are three or four more that go out of business."
He noticed a few bars around Vegas were selling their own branded bottled water. He and his partner had an idea: Why not stop trying to compete with a slew of drinks just like theirs and provide custom drink labels to others instead? In other words, as energy drinks became increasingly generic, why not capitalize on their very interchangability?
Xbrandfluids is one of at least a dozen companies that will slap a customized label onto a can of stock liquid power. The innovation is to keep the sales low-end: It's the only company online that will sell you your own drink — the customer designs the label — in amounts as small as a single case.
"We do marketing companies, conventions where clients are advertising in a booth — their potential customers are meanwhile walking around through the whole show holding that client's custom energy drink.... It's just a liquid advertisement."