The Cola Wars

Billions of dollars are at stake every year, but the Cola Wars surely tell us more than that about grown men and susceptible imbibers. The latest battle commanding headlines is over the new Coke concocted from a reformulation of the super­secret Coke formula long concealed inside an Atlanta bank vault. The momentous question is: will the New Coke make it?
Archrival Pepsi took out full page newspaper ads last week to bellow a resounding NO! In an open letter addressed to “all new Pepsi drinkers,” the company extended “its sincere appreciation and warmest welcome to the New Pepsi Generation.” Because, the letter continued, “in a nationwide survey, nearly half of those who have tried new Coke say it’s time to switch from Coke…and the overwhelming majority say they’ll switch to Pepsi. And you’ve already begun. Our May sales were the highest for any month in our 87 year history….” The ad was signed by Pepsi boss, Roger A. Enrico.

Not to be outdone, aspiring Royal Crown Cola took a full page in the New York Times. Quoting unnamed consumers as “shocked by the taste of new Coke,” Royal Crown prints some of their comments: “It’s really dull,” “This tastes a little watery to me.” “There’s less excitement going on in your mouth.” “Flat. Not a lot of flavor.” “…they’re going to ruin it.” “….it’s not the real thing.”

Coca-Cola in Atlanta disagrees vigorously. Why, before selling the New Coke, says the company, the drink was “blind taste-tested” on 190,000 consumers. Company spokesman, Ken Coleman, concludes: “So we’re confident that the new taste will succeed.”

Try that on one Gay Mullins, a retired Seattle businessman. Mullins is really on a media roll since he started his Old Cola Drinkers of America. Mullins, 57, is not fooling. He has poured $30,000 of his money into this drive and taken on a 900-number hot line that plays the recorded message: “Let’s get Coca-Cola to start making that old Coke again — or release the formula so someone else can!”

Mullins has deeper observations. What Coke did makes him angry. He feels betrayed, “like a sacred trust has been violated, something torn out of the American fabric,” he says. “I know people who are going through withdrawal without their Coca-Cola. People are having anxiety headaches. They’ve been placed in a distressed state. People are so shocked by this, they worry that maybe the whole country is beginning to fall apart.”

Out of context, someone would think Mullins in talking about the public’s response to the nuclear arms race. But relax, the offense is to the tongue, not to the human race.

Americans do take their soft drinks seriously enough to spend $30 billion a year on them. For this cascade of dollars they receive flavored, carbonated water. In regular format, a can of Coke or Pepsi contains just over 9 teaspoons of sugar and some caffeine. These mildly-addictive drinks keep many dentists profitably occupied and give the body no nutrition.

A gallon of soft drink is much more expensive than a gallon of gasoline. In Washington, a 6-pack of 12 ounce cans (72 ounces) of Coca-Cola costs $2.59, compared to $1.08 for a 1/2 gallon (64 ounces) of milk. Soft drinks with artificial sweet­eners can provide other risks to drinkers.

These drinks thrive even in undernourished societies abroad. In Brazil, Coke and Pepsi overtook a sweet, nutritious fruit juice drink called Guaraná.

Nor is ideology a barrier. Pepsi-Cola, led by its former chairman, Donald Kendall, a friend of Richard Nixon, first penetrated Russia. Bottling plants now produce the drink for the proletariat. Coca-Cola is gaining a modest foothold in Red China — a remarkable display of Marxist-Leninist flexibility given the old communist diatribes against capitalist coca-colonization.

I once asked the chairman of Coca-Cola, J. Paul Austin, a smart Harvard trained lawyer, why he was spending his skills producing Coke overseas when, for instance, he could be deliver­ing an inexpensive, nutritious drink for relief of starving millions abroad. He replied: “I don’t see anything wrong with distributing a refreshing drink.”
Well, there isn’t much right about it either. Our nation’s business leaders could do much better by their customers. They could have given us taste‑addictive drinks that both satisfied and provided nutrition, instead of cavities, for the young.

As for those $30 billion a year drinkers, there are delicious, natural fruit juices as alternatives. But switching to them requires some thinking about how to educate taste for the benefit of your health, and your family’s pocketbook.

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