Day 439: Thirst Is A Battlefield

originally published March 14, 2013

You walk into your local convenience store, peruse through the salty offerings of starch-based stoner food to accompany your quiet night of magic mushrooms and Nicholas Spark movies, when you decide you’d best grab a beverage. Little do you know, behind the double-pane glass of the store’s cooler lies a battlefield. An unrelenting, unforgiving, and unflinching war for the back of your throat. Whichever icy beverage gets to plant its flag in your uvula may win because of its flavor, it may win because of your mood this evening, or maybe its victory will be a triumph of someone’s marketing department.

Such is the condition of the Cola Wars.

Ever since the mid-1980s, soda companies have been upping the competition for your thirst-quenching dollar. Coke pried Bill Cosby away from his Jell-O Pudding Pops, so Pepsi slapped a can of their product into Ray Charles’ hand. Coke stuck a computerized head in front of some line-art graphics and somehow talked us into caring about Max Headroom, so Pepsi lit Michael Jackson’s hair on fire. Coke changed their classic formula, and Pepsi… well, they never did anything quite that offensive.

While basking in the pale florescent glow of your local soda cooler, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the burden of choice. But that burden is simply an illusion; there are really only three companies vying for your cash, and they all offer the same options, the same flavors, with only a slight deviation from line to line. You want a cola, you’ve got Coke, Pepsi and R.C. You want lemon-lime, sample some Sprite, Sierra Mist or 7-Up. Orange? How about a Fanta, Slice or a Crush? Something else citrus-y? Fresca, Mountain Dew, or Squirt.

No, don’t buy Squirt. It sounds like an accident in a bottle.

Root beers: Barq’s, Mug or A&W. Weird, super-sweet ‘blend’ soda: Mr. Pibb, Dr Slice or Dr Pepper. Iced tea: Nestea, Brisk or Snapple. You get my point. It’s either Coca-Cola, Pepsico or the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Unless you’re savvy enough to gulp back a Jones or a Stewart’s Root Beer, these are probably the only options you’ve got.

These three companies have done their part to secure the ultimate celebrity endorsements. Apart from Ray and the King of Pop, Pepsi has heaved the Spice Girls, David Bowie, Britney Spears and Jim Varney in front of the camera. Coke has gone for Elton John, Christina Aguilera and Weird Al Yankovic. The Dr Pepper/Snapple people… well, they got a lot of product placement on Seinfeld, so that’s something.

Coke’s marketing tactics play on their position as the granddaddy of the Cola Wars. They’re the old school company – were we to make a political allegory, Coke would be the conservative approach, appealing to the way things used to be, to the innocence of days gone by. They play to our inner child with smiling, tumbling, über-cute polar bears, and make sure Santa is on full display at Christmas. Coke didn’t invent Mr. Claus, but they played a huge part in our perception of the guy.

Coke doesn’t get caught in a lot of controversy. They are at the same time a symbol of American cultural hegemony, having spread to every little crevice around the planet, and of universal, borderless harmony and a shared commonality. They’d like to teach the world to sing. They are the real thing. They are it. They are a camel’s best friend. I know – not a slogan for the company yet, but I’m working on it.

Pepsi is the party on the left. They’re youthful, energetic, happening and hip. Coke wants you to think about the delicious beverage they offer; Pepsi wants to remind you who drinks their product. If you believe what the commercials tell you, then you want to savor the goodness inside a Coke bottle, but you want to be a Pepsi drinker.

Pepsi got themselves into a bit of trouble when one of their weapons launched during the Cola Wars misfired and got them sued. The promotion was for ‘Pepsi Stuff’, a points-for-prizes concept in the late 1990’s that worked fairly well for the most part, apart from one smart-ass consumer and one pesky commercial gag.

The commercial started innocently enough, showing off some of the goods you can earn if you care nothing about the detrimental effects of ingesting copious amounts of high fructose corn syrup and Phosphoric acid. It ended with a Harrier jet being flown to an elementary school with the caption indicating its value at 7,000,000 points. Ha ha. Who’s going to buy that much Pepsi?

It turns out, nobody had to. There was a clause in the small print that allowed for points to be purchased from Pepsi for ten cents apiece. A guy named John Leonard had fifteen points, and he subsequently mailed in a certified check for $700,008.50 to get him up to a cool seven million (plus the shipping & handling fee). Then he asked for his jet.

Pepsi said no – it was a joke and he should have known that. John took them to court. Seven hundred grand for a $23-million jet is a great deal. The judge sided with Pepsi, and from what I can tell, John was stuck with a whole bunch of Pepsi Points and a gamble that didn’t pay off.

One of Pepsi’s greatest successes in the Cola Wars is the infamous Pepsi Challenge – the blind taste-test commercials in which people inevitably pick Pepsi. I conducted one of these in the sixth grade and found I was one person away from a perfect 50/50 split. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink reveals a reason why Pepsi seems to score so well. His research points to the fact that people tend to prefer a sweeter beverage for a single sip, even if they’re likely to prefer the less sweet soda for an entire can.

There’s plenty of science and psychology behind this approach; Pepsi wouldn’t have tried it if they weren’t sure they’d win.

That leaves RC and the Dr Pepper products – the independents in the political race for our taste buds, who will always grab a few votes here and there, but will never unseat the two predominant parties.

It’s a vicious fight, one that will most likely never result in a winner. In truth, there are three winners right now, as all three corporations have absorbed or chased off the competition from the smaller players. Myself, I’m a political leftie and a loyal Coke drinker. The metaphor can only go so far, and dammit, I’m thirsty.

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