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Red Bull runs into criticism over extreme sports

Criticism is mounting against Austria-based energy drink manufacturer, Red Bull, for its use of extreme sports video clips in advertising, as the death toll rises among those who carry out the stunts.

Basejump in Kuala Lumpur

Basejump in Kuala Lumpur

"Horsepower in the thousands, spectacular shows and the meeting point of top-notch sports greats": Advertising for "Kini full-throttle days" in Austria on May 1 this year was full of superlatives. But the sporting event turned from spectacle to disaster when the 38-year-old pilot and stuntman Guido Gehrmann crashed his small jet and died.

Gehrmann worked for Austria-based energy drink producer Red Bull. On the "Flying Bulls" website, Gehrmann was mourned as an excellent pilot and great personality, while the Kini site included a section with the header "Goodbye Guido." Yet there are those who are questioning the recklessness of the company's advertising efforts - Gehrmann wasn't the first extreme sportsman to have died in such efforts.

In 2009, three died while carrying out stunts for Red Bull: skier Shane McConkey, parachuter Eli Thompson and basejumper Ueli Gegenschatz - who was even filmed during the action that killed him.

Within the press and on social media platforms, the question is being asked: who is actually responsible for the deadly maneuvers?

Death jump

Journalist Helmar Büchel delved into this question with his report for German television, called "Red Bull's dark side." Büchel sketched out details on the deaths of six extreme sportsmen - five of which were sponsored by Red Bull.

Skier Shane McConkey also came into focus. The Canadian athlete had jumped from a 300-meeter-high (nearly 1,000-foot-high) cliff in Italy's Dolomites mountain range. The plan was for McConkey, after completing a double backwards flip, to detach his skis and fly in a wingsuit, finally landing to the ground in a parachute. The plan backfired when McConkey spent too much time struggling with his skis and wasn't able to use the wingsuit or parachute. McConkey died.

Büchel told the German press that McConkey was under tremendous pressure: "In order to stay in business, McConkey perceived himself as challenged to perform ever-more reckless acts - like combining extreme skiing and base-jumping."

The 90-minute film "McConkey" - produced by Red Bull - is set to be released this year in theaters.

Felix Baumgartner jumping out of the capsule for Red Bull Stratos in a spacesuit. (Photo:

Millions watched on as Austrian Felix Baumgartner leapt to Earth from the stratosphere for Red Bull Stratos last October

Vicious cycle

Red Bull Germany declined an interview for this story, saying the media spotlight should stay on the athletes with whom they work. This spotlight contributed to Red Bull's sales of 5.2 million cans of energy drink in 2012, up 12 percent from the previous year. The company spends more on events and marketing than for production of its fizzy drink.

Christoph Breuer of the German Sport University in Cologne said it's not just Red Bull that bears responsibility - it's also the insatiable curiosity of the viewers. "On the one hand, you can say: bad Red Bull. But without market demand, Red Bull wouldn't be doing it," Breuer told DW. Six- or seven-figure view counts for the company's YouTube videos reflect this.

Breuer, who teaches economics and management at the university, explained that the connection of adventure, extremes, and going beyond the boundaries to accomplish the impossible is Red Bull's main economic value.

And these boundaries must keep getting pushed, he added. "In five years, a stratosphere jump won't be anything special," Breuer said. "It always has to go farther."

But in the end, Breuer concluded, the vicious cycle of always going farther leads to a situation where "risks for the subject cannot be reduced - rather, the opposite." But he thinks even such deaths won't tarnish the company's image.

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