Jeff Jardine

51Fifty drink name controversy burning up lots of energy

The 51Fifty energy drink recently sparked a complaint from a woman saying the name denigrates mental illness. The company’s owner, however, notes he has used the 51Fifty brand to help raise funds for autism awareness and youth programs. He also said he will use the brand to help ease the stigma of mental illness.
The 51Fifty energy drink recently sparked a complaint from a woman saying the name denigrates mental illness. The company’s owner, however, notes he has used the 51Fifty brand to help raise funds for autism awareness and youth programs. He also said he will use the brand to help ease the stigma of mental illness. The Fresno Bee

There are givens in this age of political correctness: Some folks are sensible, some are insensitive and some are overly sensitive. Consequently, it doesn’t take much to turn any topic into a sensitive one.

Consider a recent story from our sister newspaper, The Fresno Bee. The publication reported that Save Mart Supermarkets will discontinue selling a brand of energy drink called 51Fifty from its shelves after receiving a complaint from a woman who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Eve Hinson, who once worked at The Modesto Bee, wrote a letter to Save Mart claiming the 51Fifty name denigrates mental illness. The slogan on the cans reads “Living the Madness.”

For those who don’t eavesdrop on police scanners, 5150 tells responding officers they’re about to approach a person showing signs of mental illness who could present a danger to themselves and others. Those kinds of calls in Stanislaus County generally mean a 72-hour stay in the behavioral health facility at Briggsmore Avenue and Claus Road.

Some who supported Hinson’s opposition to the 51Fifty brand name are members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) but were not acting officially on behalf of the organization. Regardless, the grocery store chain stopped selling the drinks. It is a private business that gets to decide which products it wants to sell.

As usual, there is another side to the issue. The energy drink company’s owner, Merced County resident Carlos E. Vieira, in 2007 created the 51Fifty brand, saying it represents “all of the things that helped me through my tough times and helped me to reach my successes,” in a video he posted in response Thursday on Facebook.

The farmer and auto racer created a foundation that bears his name and since its inception, he said, has raised more than $800,000 for autism awareness. The foundation also sponsors the 51Fifty youth boxing club in Livingston, which last weekend hosted an amateur boxing show that drew 800 fans and an appearance by former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. A year ago, Sugar Ray Leonard attended and did the same. The proceeds go to the Merced County Sheriff’s Activities League, which works with at-risk kids.

So while some are offended, Vieira’s 51Fifty brand without question benefits community causes.

The controversy drew varying opinions on social media and through letters to the opinion pages about Vieira, the meaning of 51Fifty and whether it contributes to the stigma of mental illness or actually improves it.

Many strongly supported Vieira, citing his track record of raising money for autism awareness. Criticisms ranged from the use of the brand name and the foundation name, to Save Mart for pulling the product.

Oakdale’s Erica Gomez, mother of an autistic child and a strong supporter of NAMI, posted, “I get what the advocates are trying to do. I really do. But let’s not forget what this company has done for autism foundation & helping kids to have an outlet instead of the streets. ... When the company loses money, so (do) the charities.”

Another posted on The Fresno Bee’s website: “I am a 5150. I love there (sic) drinks ... what they do for the kids and that the name doesn’t bother him at all.”

And yet another, who said he has relatives taken on 5150 holds and also has an autistic child, proclaimed, “The intentions of the company are not to make light of mental illness but in fact raise awareness for people that suffer.”

Last year, I wrote a column about Modesto Junior College students who spoke openly about what it’s like to live every day with mental illness. They created a campus chapter aligned with the Stanislaus County chapter of NAMI.

“The stigma is the No. 1 problem with getting help for mental illness,” Lynn Padlo told me Thursday. She heads the countywide NAMI group.

“If you have diabetes, you can get help,” she said. “But the common perception is that people with mental health issues are crazy and violent. That stigma is why only 30 percent actually get help. The less we stigmatize it, the better.”

Padlo cited a song by Dierks Bentley titled “5-1-5-0” the lyrics of which she views as as stigmatizing mental illness: “5-1-5-0, somebody call the po-po (police) / I’m goin’ crazy, thinkin’ ’bout you baby.”

“For the parents whose kids are mentally ill, it’s frightening,” she said. “At other times, you want to hear it.”

Want to hear it? Yes, she explained, because in some cases, intervention is absolutely necessary. It means for 72 hours, at least, the distressed person will be safe, as will those he or she might have threatened.

“Help comes through advocacy, not by shaming,” she said.

Vieira said he will not change the name of the energy drink. It will remain 51Fifty. He said he instead will use the brand to ease the stigma of mental illness just as it has done for autism and promises to donate similarly.

That is the better option, said mother of an autistic kid, NAMI supporter and voice of reason Gomez. The drink’s label doesn’t concern her.

“One of the first things we learn through NAMI is that we are not our illness,” she said. “And our diagnosis does not define us. So certainly a name on a can shouldn’t, either.”

  Comments