Say It Ain't So, Coke

IN THE WAKE of Coca-Cola’s epochal decision to change its taste, certain questions remain.

Must “market pointsdictate formula? The Coca-Cola Company, although still holds a lion’s share of soft-drink sales, has seen that share shrink by several market points. Each of those points represents $250 million in sales. Therefore Coke has come up with a taste that is flatter, sweeter—more like that of its leading competitor, Pepsi. By that logic, if 60 Minutes started losing ratings points to Fame, Mike Wallace would start break-dancing.

The Reagan Administration has done something similar in Latin America: in order to stop the spread of Marxism-Leninism, it has adopted a stance that smacks of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Someone should look into the feasibility of assigning precise economic value to what we might call “integrity points.”

Is it idle to speak of soft drinks and imperialism in the same breath?

The spread of Coke bottles into far-off climes has long been a symbol of—some would say—pushy Americanization. There has never been an ickier expression of we-are-the-worldism than the well-known Coke jingle:

I’d like to teach the world to sing In perfect harmony.

I’d like to buy [sic] the world a Coke And keep it company.

If a freedom-loving person were forced to choose between a world in which all people waved Coke bottles and one in which all people waved hammers and sickles, he would presumably take the former. But he wouldn’t love it. Especially if Coke is going to change as the wind blows. What if China makes a soft drink that tastes like fermented rice and Coke loses more market points?

Setting aside international implications for a moment, is what we are seeing here the Repepsipublicanizing of America?

For years Pepsi was the GOP pop, Coke the Democratic. Donald M. Kendall, the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Pepsico, Inc., is a longtime friend of President Richard Nixon’s, and during the Nixon Administration, Pepsi entered Russia. Jimmy Carter, while readying his presidential campaign, called the Coca-Cola Company “my own state department,” and during the Carter Administration, Coke entered China. Then Reagan took upon himself the mantles of FDR. JFK, and Truman; Pepsi signed up Geraldine Ferraro; and Coke became more like Pepsi. What is left of Coke, or of the Democratic Party, as we have known it?

How about all those people—a majority of soda drinkers—who were fond oj the old Coke?

We may anticipate hoarding, blackmarketeering, rich people putting in Coke cellars. And one other intriguing possibility: Pepsi might come out with an ancillary cola that tastes a little less flat, a little less sweet. Something called Pepsi-Tart, or Pepsi-Fizz, or, what the heck, Pepsi-Coca.

And how about this writer’s reactions?

Until the change, I had always thought of Coke as, relatively speaking, the class act. This belief might be ascribed to my having grown up right outside Atlanta, Coke’s corporate and ancestral home. But I was exposed from an early age to Coke and Pepsi both. In fact, I went through a period in high school when I would go into Tatum’s drugstore on the Decatur, Georgia, town square after baseball practice, sit at the soda fountain, order a fountain Pepsi, drink a little bit out of it, lean over the counter (surreptitiously or not, depending on who the incumbent soda jerk was), squirt a little extra Pepsi syrup or soda water into my glass, drink a little bit more, and go on topping up almost indefinitely. Meanwhile my teammates and I would wait for someone to drive the wrong way around the square so that we could run outside and shout, “Are you CRAZY?! You’re going around the square backward!” This was in many ways a gratifying time in my life. It is worth noting, however, that Tatum’s did not serve fountain Coke. I always thought Coke had more edge, more snap. My assumption was that Pepsi wished it had access to Coke’s secret ingredient, so that it could taste more like Coke. I regarded Pepsi as Cokesque. Coke invented cola, right? In recent years I have ceased to drink cola, except occasionally when I feel bad. I prefer seltzer, beer, rum, orange juice, wine, gin, cold water, grape juice, vodka, iced tea (not canned), margaritas, eggnog, stout, buttermilk, pineapple juice, slivovitz, ale, coffee, grapefruit juice, cognac, and limeade. Compared to any of these beverages, cola now tastes gucky to me. Among colas, however, the old Coke seemed least gucky. When I found out that Coke wanted to be more like Pepsi instead of the other way around, a small but long-standing aspect of my world view turned upside-down. Next you’ll he telling me something really devastating—that Louis Armstrong always wanted to play more like Al Hirt.

Is it fair to describe Coke’s new taste as flatter, sweeter, more like Pepsi?

The Coca-Cola Company says no. Committed Coke drinkers of my acquaintance say yes. One thing that everyone, except oenologists, might agree on: the tongue and palate, essential as they are to both language and gustation, cannot produce words for what anything—except sugar, salt, sour cream, fish in general, and defeat—tastes like.

Is there anything that ought, for the sake of world betterment, to be more like Pepsi?

How about cocaine. This is not likely to happen, however, because it would cause cocaine to lose market points.

If Coke Is It, and also was It, how can they have changed it?