Coca-Cola is different now, and one wonders, really, if anything will make sense again. When the big bosses in Atlanta decided to change the Coke formula and, after 99 years, create a drink that, in their words, is “smoother, rounder, yet bolder,” they violated the boundary between commerce and the culture that nurtures it. For better or worse, Coke—the old Coke—is the catalyst of a million memories, something about America that Americans like best. Now it is gone, or soon will be, and the memories are kaput. Smoother, rounder, bolder? It is as if the baseball commissioner were to announce that games henceforth would be played with gloves on both hands. “It’s a crime,” said a woman in New York who seems in mourning. “Why?” she asked. “Why?” We all know the answer. Although the clear leader in sales, with 21.7 per cent of the world soft drink trade and 24.8 per cent domestically, Coca-Cola was deemed by its managers to be in need of rehabilitation. The major adversary, Pepsi, was refusing to surrender. And at the same time, all these other demicolas and pseudocolas and uncolas were stacked up on the supermarket shelves and—think of it!—some consumers were dropping six-packs of the stuff into their shopping baskets. Central to Coke’s decision, then, is an enduring American attitude regarding free enterprise. We say three cheers for the open market, proclaim our faith in the wisdom of the buying public and promptly plot to kneecap the competition.
Being world leader, you see, was not adequate to the ambitions of Coca-Cola’s top brass. They wanted more, more, more—how much more, we can only guess. So they conspired to transform the Coke of our childhood into something sweeter and less fizzy, something that just happened to taste a great deal like Pepsi-Cola. Certainly, that is the view adopted by the Pepsi people. “After . . . years of going at it eyeball to eyeball,” exulted a Pepsi ad, “the other guy just blinked.” Forthwith, Pepsi gave its employees the day off and invited New York City to a block party.
While the announcement of Coca-Cola’s initiative came as a surprise, there had been signs that very little is held sacred by this particular company. Aluminum cans all but replaced the familiar bottles. There was Diet Coke and Coke without caffeine—outrageous ideas in themselves because what was
the point of Coke, anyway, if it did not provide the user with an altogether legal hit of energy, did not leave him alert and ready to drive another 100 miles or cram for a final in geology or cling to consciousness through the elementary school’s annual spring violin recital? Early in its history, the company yielded to social convention and purged cocaine from its beverage. One can accept that much of a compromise. But no sugar? No caffeine? Then some hotshot in research and development brought forth Cherry Coke, premixed and in a pop-top can. After that, all things were possible.
Decidedly impenitent, Coke executives say taste surveys indicate that consumers like the new “7X-100” blend better than the old “7X,” but the company’s claim cannot be taken seriously. It is akin to White House news releases saying that by a 3:1 margin the people of the United States support the President in this or that policy decision. The Presi-
Being world leader was not adequate to the ambitions of the Coke management team.
They wanted more
dent has decided to cede Montana to Canada; 3:1 approve. The President nominates Billy Graham as secretary of state; 3:1 in favor. The President announces his intention to sell the White House and buy a condominium. Terrific idea, 3:1. Coca-Cola? Coke changes its recipe and now tastes for all the world like the competition cola. Consumers dizzy with delight.
If the public is so pleased, why are people stockpiling the original drink and wondering what they’ll do when the stash runs out? A woman named Sylvia brought eight old-timey Cokes back to New York from her home town in Missouri and now is nearing nervous collapse because she doesn’t know whether to drink her haul or bury it like treasure. Sylvia associates Coke with some of the most important events and people in her life—with coming of age, with a longlost love, with a suitor who once tried to persuade her to stay the night by stocking his refrigerator with Coke in a variety of containers. (Alas, he failed to locate any Coke in the classic green bottles, and, unimpressed, Sylvia said nix.)
There is a geopolitical dimension to this affair as well. Coke, of course, is universal, but only in recent years has it penetrated that enormous distribution territory known as China. “The stupidest marketing move in history,” snorted an exasperated American struggling to understand what was occurring. “You spend millions teaching the Chinese how to love Coke and now what do you give them? Pepsi!”
But forget the Chinese. They are tootling merrily along on the road to capitalism anyway and must learn the peculiarities of the system sooner or later. Perhaps they did not realize that the truly modern shopper is expected to swoon at the sight of the word “New!” on a detergent box or candy bar wrapper or 12-ounce cans of his favorite soft drink—that there is nothing worse than to be seen with last year’s model. A country that builds itself a wall which endures for more than 2,000 years may not at first grasp the theory of planned obsolescence. Does anyone in Peking change the formula for tea? Not on your life.
It is for ourselves we must worry most. No matter what Atlanta says, Coke is gone. Ebbets Field in Brooklyn is gone. 1955 Chevy convertibles are gone. Doo-wop harmony is gone from hit music. The local pizza place now charges $12 for a pie with the works, so even a decent and affordable Friday night meal is gone. Coke’s decision to abandon the drink, originated in 1886 as a “Brain Tonic and Intellectual Beverage” by a Georgia pharmacist, is just another indicator that Western culture is splitting its seams.
Is there hope? Sylvia is certain that somebody will organize a boycott and that Coca-Cola will be forced, at last, to take the 7X formula from the corporate vault, chuck the Pepsi taste-alike and put the world back together again. Says she: “What these people in Atlanta don’t understand is that Coke isn’t theirs— it’s ours!”
While people like Sylvia dream of better days, Coca-Cola sponsors promotional extravaganzas of every sort and officials speak boldly about a “new taste champion.” The reigning taste champion simply wasn’t good enough, and when you think about it, perhaps the bosses are correct. Old 7X may have tasted great, but Coke’s executives are living proof that, as tonic for the brains, the beloved elixir left much to be desired.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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