The best product names are like the doors of a nightclub, enticing us to pay a fee in exchange for the right to step past the threshold and enter a better world. Sometimes they tell you what a thing is, or what it does. Sometimes they gesture at a specific class or lifestyle. Often they mean nothing at all, but the way their syllables are arranged sparks music in our brains. Think: Air Jordan. Kleenex. Counter Culture. Post-It Notes. Kinkos. PlayStation. Coca-Cola. Viagra. Great product names, all of them. And yet, none of them have shit on the greatest product name of them all: BuzzBallz.
Even if you’ve never heard of BuzzBallz, all it takes is one guess to figure out what they are: liquid-filled balls with flat bottoms and soda-can tops that, when popped and sipped from, will get you buzzed. Self-explanatory? Check. Utility? Check. Lifestyle associations? Assuming that “liking to party” is a lifestyle, then check. The Z at the end adds a pop of playfulness, which feels in line with the sort of marketing language we have come accustomed to associating with the millennial generation, as well as Gen Z—the youngest of whom, per the Pew Research Center, are now of legal drinking age.
Not surprisingly, these little orbs of intoxication—which are priced at $3.49 a pop, contain 15 percent alcohol, and come in sticky-sweet flavors like “Lime ‘Rita’” and “Pineapple Colada”— have become something of a meme on TikTok. As of this writing, the #BuzzBallz hashtag has 14 million views on the app, and includes numerous videos of young people (I’d estimate two-thirds of whom are women), devising gags to perform with the drinks, shouting out their favorites, and going absolutely the fuck off.
Poking around the hashtag’s page on the app, you can find a slow-motion video of a dude in a parking lot pouring a giant BuzzBallz (or BuzzBallz Biggie) into his mouth while non-diegetic trap music plays in the background. There are clips of young people at a cabin wrapping BuzzBallz in tinfoil for some reason, of a woman gamely attempting to drink nine of them in a row, and of a guy in front of a Trump 2020 flag licking the side of a Strawberry 'Rita. In the hands of TikTokkers, BuzzBallz are functionally toys—things to be garnished or shaken until they mysteriously light up; transformed into succulent pots or strung like Christmas lights; enlisted as source material for ASMR videos; used as pieces in a complex-looking DIY drinking board game called—what else?—Buzzed.
Not only does all of this BuzzBallz content seem to beget more BuzzBallz content; if videos like this one and this one are to be believed, it also would appear to beget more BuzzBallz purchases. The pandemic has been a boon for alcohol sales, and things have been no different for BuzzBallz’ parent company, the Carrollton, Texas-based Southern Champion. According to a company rep, the firm saw revenues of $68.8 million in 2020, nearly a one-third increase from its 2019 total.
At 32, I’ve passed the point in my life where I am physically capable of drinking multiple beverages stronger than light beer without becoming violently hungover the next day. But I’m exactly the right age to appreciate the cultural significance of heavily alcoholic novelty beverages. They have a way of expressing the unspoken values of whichever generation happens to be young and reckless at the moment. Because when you’re a cheap drink competing against a bunch of other cheap drinks for the hearts and livers of America, it helps if you can somehow capture the zeitgeist—even if that happens by accident.
Despite their unsubtle name, BuzzBallz are perhaps the most socially responsible bargain-bin booze-beverage ever to exist. They’re recyclable, gluten-free, kosher, and contain real fruit juice, and, given that they pack thrice the ABV of a White Claw into a package that’s about half a White Claw’s size, you can get tipsy while producing a smaller amount of waste. On top of that, BuzzBallz come in biodegradable plastic and are produced by a genuinely independent business—one that, the drink’s packaging cheerfully reminds you, was started by a woman. It may very well be the perfect drink for an age in which conscious consumer capitalism peacefully coexists with a spirit of excess in everything else.
And so, a couple weeks ago, when I saw that BuzzBallz were available to buy on goPuff—a VC-backed delivery app that aims to replicate the convenience and product selection of a neighborhood bodega, delivering snacks, booze, and household essentials to your door in “just minutes”—I knew what needed to be done. I had to buy a BuzzBall, drink it, and then write a million-word essay about it. Thirty minutes later, a single Lime ‘Rita Chiller-flavored BuzzBall arrived at my door.
My BuzzBall looked to be about the size and shape that would make them perfect for juggling if I’d had three of them. Its branding was simple and distinct: To the right of the main logo is printed the phrase “WOMEN-OWNED,” framed by the words “SHAKE WELL.” To the left, written in delicate script, was “Have a Ball!!” The whole vibe reminded me of something one of those avant-garde-art-collective-slash-trend-forecasting-firms would have come up with, in a good way (I think?). For one thing, Buzzballz consumers on TikTok seem to be really into repeating the phrase “Women-owned!” in that tone of voice where you can’t tell if a person is kidding or not—like a meme within a meme.
Upon closer inspection, I discovered that it listed “orange wine” as one of its primary ingredients. Initially, I assumed that this was referring to the trendy natural wine that derives its distinct hue from grape skins fermenting alongside their juices; however, a company representative later explained to me that they literally use wine made from oranges, which “is neutral in taste and smells similar to vodka.” (Some BuzzBallz feature vodka, while the ones containing orange wine are called “Chillers.” Both styles contain 15 percent alcohol.)
I made the mistake of not cooling my Lime ‘Rita down in the fridge first, and as a result it sort of tasted like poison. But then I mixed it in a tall glass with some cold Topo Chico, and it was delicious. While most non-beer canned alcoholic beverages—think White Claw or Cacti Seltzer—tend to be defined by a chemical-y sweetness, my Lime ‘Rita was more like an organic green gummy bear, obviously indulgent but somehow still vaguely of the earth. This duality, between gross and good, is part of the fun.
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Since time immemorial, people have liked to get drunk off weird stuff. In the early 1900s, writes Luc Sante in his book Low Life, dive bars on the Bowery in New York “sold a punch composed of whiskey, hot rum, camphor, benzene, and cocaine sweepings, for six cents a glass.” In the early 1970s, Coors beer was brewed with Rocky Mountain spring water using zero preservatives, leading to a pure-tasting but shelf-unstable product that became the best-selling beer in ten of the 11 states in which it was sold, leading to such high demand that people started smuggling the stuff out East. (In case any of this sounds hazily familiar to you, it might be because this history was integral to the plot of the 1977 Burt Reynolds film Smokey and the Bandit.) To point to a more recent example: Icing, the act of surprising someone with a Smirnoff Ice so that they are forced to chug it, was, and maybe still is, a thing.
I am old enough to have consumed Sparx—the canned caffeine cocktail with battery-esque packaging—while walking through the campus of the University of North Carolina, confident that everyone watching us would assume we were drinking energy drinks. I am also old enough to have been 21 when Phusion Projects, the makers of the camo-canned energy cocktail Four Loko, announced that it was voluntarily removing caffeine from its recipe. In the heady days following the news, I even technically served as an accomplice to a felony by buying a thousand dollars’ worth of the endangered product for a 20-year-old friend who wanted to sell them on CraigsList.
When I was of binge-drinking age, we chose our booze primarily based on price and aesthetics, preferring cheap drinks with branding that either looked vintage in a way that suggested it had remained untouched by a corporate art department for decades (think: Pabst Blue Ribbon and Colt 45), or with cringey, hyper-modern graphics whose crazy-people vibes were ideal fodder for irony (Four Loko, again). Like many of our consumer choices, people selected the types of cheap alcohol they drink as a way of telling a story about themselves. This is still very much the case, but we didn’t have social media on our phones back then. We drank what we drank for our own pleasure, and occasionally for the weird or knowing looks that we got from those in our immediate vicinity.
But services like Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok have added a new vector to the equation, transforming our every action into an opportunity to create content. Corresponding with this shift is an increased emphasis on brands performing “social responsibility” in the marketplace. While we once willed ourselves into not thinking about how that t-shirt we bought at H&M could have possibly only cost four dollars, the fast fashion retailer now sells a sustainably-sourced “Conscious” line at an upcharge, and has introduced transparency measures allowing shoppers to trace the supply chains of most items that they sell.
The consumer story we value is no longer the implied “a priori knowledge as a means of social dominance” that characterized the hipster generation. When we buy a thing, especially if we buy a thing and show it off on social media, we want people to know we’re a good person. We care about the things we buy, where they come from, what they’re made out of, and exactly who is benefiting financially from our purchase.
Aesthetically, we’ve shifted away from the hyper-specific logos, symbols, and patterns, often loaded with cultural and/or subcultural significance, which characterized the late 2000s and early 2010s, to a more minimalist style—clean and basic, stylish but conservatively so. Like an Instagram-friendly mural or so-called “Gentrification Font,” BuzzBallz are a blank canvas upon which we may project our own meaning.
In other words, we’ve gone from, “I am drinking a Four Loko and it’s funny because the can is really ugly and there’s weird chemicals in it,” to, “I am drinking a BuzzBall and I’m glad that my money is going to a women-owned company which cares enough to list all the ingredients on the front of the plastic sphere-can.” But even if the values have changed, the end result—being drunk—remains the same.
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As far as I can tell, though, Southern Champion has done none of this on purpose. Buzzballz were created in 2009 by a woman named Merrilee Kick, who was, at the time, a high school teacher in her forties, living in the Dallas area and working on her MBA. Kick, who Southern Champion did not make available for an interview, seems like a fascinating person: According to a 2016 interview she did with Forbes, she’s lived in South Africa and Sweden in addition to the United States. Prior to founding the company, she'd done stints as a computer engineer, a radio anchor, and a voiceover artist. Per a Southern Champion rep, she was also an extra in Walker, Texas Ranger.
She got the idea for BuzzBallz, she told one Texas publication, while “grading papers by the pool.” She continued: “I was having a cocktail and next to me there was this round votive candle that I had bought when I lived in Sweden. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a round party ball for a cocktail?’” BuzzBallz became her master’s thesis, and it soon became her primary focus, funded through a loan as well as a home equity line of credit. She used her computer engineering background to design an original spherical can. It was constructed from a kind of earth-friendly plastic that degrades into reusable gases in less than a decade (most plastics break down over hundreds of years), but can also be safely shaken, thrown, refrigerated, and left out in the sun.
By the end of 2012, according to the article I linked above, Kick’s business was breaking even. Though she initially focused on the Dallas area, it went national when Wal-Mart started stocking the drink. In 2016, BuzzBallz the brand begat Southern Champion, which began introducing new products, including ready-to-drink cocktail lines like SIP SIP HOORAY and Texas Craft Cocktails, and hard liquor offerings like Crooked Fox whiskey, XIII Kings vodka, and Pelican Harbor rum. In addition to BuzzBallz and BuzzBallz Chillers, the company also makes BuzzTallz, which are wine-based drinks that come in traditional cans, and BuzzBallz Biggies, which are gigantic (1.75 liter) BuzzBallz with tops that are mercifully resealable. In 2017, Southern Champion brought in $20 million in revenue; by 2019, that figure had doubled.
Southern Champion told me via email that its best-selling line of beverages is BuzzBallz Chillers, specifically the Choc Tease and Lime ‘Rita flavors. Part of the key to BuzzBallz Chillers’ success, the company said, is the orange wine itself: While vodka-based drinks can only be sold in liquor stores in some states, wine-based cocktails typically aren't subject to the same rules, and can also be sold in grocery and convenience stores.
It may very well be a net positive for the company's sales that 1.6 million people have watched this video of college-age-looking people playing a drinking game where they throw a BuzzBallz at each other and whoever catches them has to immediately chug them. But according to Southern Champion, going viral on TikTok was never part of the plan; the company has never advertised on the platform, and says it sees its target consumer as people “between the ages of 25 and 34 years of age” who have “active lifestyle” which includes “socializing and outdoor events.” All in all, I get the sense that nobody there will touch TikTok with a ten-foot pole.
While Southern Champion told me that it engages in active social media marketing on certain platforms—a recent campaign focusing on hyper-localized ads on Facebook and Instagram was just nominated for a Shorty Award—it’s also a member of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), a spirits-industry trade group with a Code of Responsibility that draws strict boundaries when it comes to appropriate advertising. According to DISCUS’s Code of Responsible Practices, DISCUS members may only advertise on platforms “where at least 71.6 percent of the audience” is of legal drinking age, or at least can be assumed to be of legal drinking age. In the case of social media, the company told me, that usually means sticking to platforms that allow age-gating “and are proven to have 71.6 percent or more of their user base to be 21 years of age or older.”
The Southern Champion rep I exchanged emails with told me that the company found out about BuzzBallz’s viral status on TikTok “pretty much the same way [any company]” might. “A lot of people in-house were quick to spot our increasing popularity on the platform, and our PR monitoring software picked up on some pieces that had been posted about us online.”
When I asked how the company felt about the TikTok boost, though, they seemed to steer the conversation back to the emphasis that the company places on responsible consumption: “We are always flattered and excited when we see consumers that are of age, enjoying and engaging with our brands in a responsible manner.” Due to the app's lack of an age gate and relatively young audience—an estimated 32.5 percent of users are between ten and 19 years-old, placing it below the 71.6 percent threshold—they stressed that they were prohibited "from advertising or even engaging with the TikTok user base.”
I get the impression that there is an accidental quality to BuzzBallz’ TikTok success, one that the company helped bring about simply by happening to incarnate the right combination of decadence and conscious consumerism—and that the company seemed to experience as both a blessing and a curse. Regardless, it’s not like the company has any choice in the matter. The app is designed to make specific videos, not the users who create them, go viral, based largely upon feedback loops: if a small number of people positively engage with something they’re served, TikTok will show it to more people, as well as make note of the hashtags or songs associated with successful videos and give weight to new videos that incorporate them.
This is a thing that the internet does. You’re just strolling along, minding your own business, and then something happens that causes a bunch of people to start talking about you online. Sometimes this is good, like when a story about a stray dog who was caught trying to steal a stuffed unicorn from a Dollar General goes viral and leads to said dog being adopted almost immediately. But mainly, if it doesn’t involve an animal, it’s usually bad.
The “Damn Daniel” kids got to go on Ellen and appeared in a Weezer music video, but how weird must it be to be them now? Daniel is probably in college at this point, and he can probably never wear Vans again in public, or any shoes at all, without someone yelling his catchphrase at him. This is to say nothing of the deep shame of being the person who accidentally posted porn on U.S. Airways’ official Twitter Account. Or the injustice of a bunch of people on the internet falsely accusing you of murdering someone on the roof of the Cecil Hotel. Or the embarrassment faced by the teenager who made the mistake of challenging a former NBA benchwarmer to a game of one-on-one. Or the hours we waste and data we unwittingly give to social media platforms because we inexplicably feel a need to generate an opinion on, like, Bean Dad.
Mostly, all of this simply is what it is: a side-effect of living our lives in two places at once, one physical and one not, neither of them less real than the other. The pressure of living in a world where everything we do could hypothetically show up on the internet—where we must engage in a constant performance of both goodness and good cheer—is enough to drive someone to the brink of madness. At least if the stress of our bifurcated modern existence becomes too much to bear, we’ll still have BuzzBallz in our court.