A food activist has filed a complaint with the New York State Attorney General against Gatorade sports drink for what she said is a deceptive viral advertising campaign that calls water "the enemy of performance."
The campaign, which ran most of last year, featured a mobile game app called Bolt!, starring Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt. Gamers navigated a Bolt avatar going through an obstacle course and picking up bottles of Gatorade along the way to make him go faster and avoiding drops of water that would make him go slower.
Nancy Huehnergarth, a food activist and blogger for civileats.com, stumbled across a short video describing the game and marketing campaign on Interactive Advertising Bureau's website, where it had won an IAB Mixx award for mobile marketing.
Huehnergarth said when she first saw the video, her jaw dropped.
"The video said the goal of the game was to 'drive home the message that Gatorade is better than water.' That was just unbelievable to me," she said.
"The integration needed to position Gatorade as the hero that drives performance and higher scores with water as the enemy that hinders performance," the video voiceover on the IAB site said.
The video also noted that the campaign needed no media support or traditional advertising. Celebrities, including Bolt and Justin Bieber, helped promote the game through social media and interviews.
Huehnergarth said she filed the complaint Tuesday because she believes the campaign sent an inaccurate message to children, who can be easily influenced by this type of advertising.
"It's preying on youth while slipping past parents who don't necessarily police a mobile device quite as carefully as they do a computer," she said. "I think it's chutzpah to the highest degree."
PepsiCo, the parent company of Gatorade, said in a statement, "The mobile game, Bolt! from Gatorade was designed to educate athletes about the scientifically proven concept that sport drinks can have advantages when it comes to athletic performance because they contain carbohydrates that provide fuel and electrolytes that aid in hydration.
"Despite the language one of our partner agencies used in the award submission, we embrace the role water plays in athletic performance and overall health and wellness."
The statement also pointed out that PepsiCo is a major player in the bottled-water market with its Aquafina brand.
Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he also thought the marketing campaign was misleading.
"I think the basic strategy is to make people think they will become better athletes if they drink Gatorade, but the average consumer's health and wallet would be better off if they stuck with water," he said.
Most experts do agree that unless you are a high-performing athlete who spends hours in training, sports drinks should be reserved for high-intensity, long-duration activities like a marathon or all-day soccer tournament.
"Water is by far the best way to replenish fluids in the body after exercise as long as you're not doing a long workout under extreme conditions like very hot weather," said Felicia Stoler, who is a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine, as well as a registered dietitian. "For the average person who is doing an average workout, water is the best choice."
Stoler said that most people, especially children, should probably avoid the extra calories and sugar contained in sports drinks. She said she's also worried that kids now consume sports drinks even when they aren't doing sports.
"This shouldn't be something they wash down their pizza with," she said.
Besides winning the IAB award, the game is up for several other gaming and mobile awards. It garnered 4 million Facebook likes and was downloaded more than 2.3 million times, according to the video describing the game and marketing that accompanied the award's submission and has since been taken down. The game, which is no longer available, was played more than 83 million times and 73 percent of those players were between the ages of 13 and 24, according to the video.
Huehnergarth said she hopes the attorney general will respond to her complaint quickly.
"They're trying to fly under the radar. If they have a deceptive claim, I'd like to see this campaign investigated to prevent sending a false message to children about how healthy it is to drink water," she said.
Related: 4 New Drink Trends Decoded