How Crystal Pepsi Anticipated Silicon Valley

The clear cola’s nostalgic relaunch harkens back to a time when the world’s problems seemed simple.

 (Theo Wargo / Getty)

Like love or peace or tenderness, cola is not a simple thing, but a complex one. In the mid 1800s, John Pemberton invented the soft drink we know by the name by combining extracts of the African kola nut and the coca plant: Coca-Cola was born. But the taste of cola—originally a pharmaceutical tonic—had very little to do with either coca or kola. The coca leaf was originally chosen as a palliative to Pemberton’s morphine addiction, and the bitter kola nut added caffeine. To make the drink palatable and marketable, sugar and other flavorings were added. The taste we know as “cola” today is an amalgam of essential oils: citrus and cassia (a cinnamon bark) mostly, with variations that include lavender, anise, nutmeg, and other flavorings. Caramel gives cola its unique color and density.

Today’s mass-market colas use less potent and less dear versions of the natural ingredients that make a soda a cola, and caramel is used exclusively for coloring rather than for depth of flavor. That makes the brown color unnecessary; a vestigial feature that makes cola look the way consumers expect it to, and to distinguish it from lemon-lime drinks.

In 1992, PepsiCo decided to call cola’s bluff. The result was Crystal Pepsi, a soft drink as clear as Sprite or 7-Up that could still boast the familiar and popular taste of a cola.

The early 1990s were a primordial soup for cause marketing and new appeals to naturalness, rekindling ideals first set alight in the ‘70s. Earth Day had been reborn as an international marketing juggernaut. Environmental causes gained steam, among them recycling programs and the reduction of ozone-destroying chemicals. Organic food became more widely certified, and natural food chains like Whole Foods expanded rapidly.

Clarity and purity were virtues. They suggested unadulteration, the opposite of the chemical, artificial, manufactured indulgences of the 1980s. The trend was a threat to companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, giants of artificiality. Crystal Pepsi took hold of this trend and turned it on its head. By removing the caramel coloring and caffeine from cola, Pepsi could pitch it as a more natural substitute—“the clear alternative,” as their marketing put it—to ordinary soda. They weren’t alone—Clearly Canadian’s flavored sparkling waters also enjoyed lift from the winds of change—but Pepsi was by far the largest and most mainstream brand to bet the company on its own decontamination.

The cultural and political climate of the early ‘90s was receptive and optimistic. The Soviet Union had recently fallen. The first American hot war in a generation had concluded, with apparent success at the time. The materialist indulgences of the Reagan era appeared poised to enter a new balance. The 1990-91 recession had ended, and a young politician who played the saxophone and (sort-of) smoked pot would soon occupy the White House. The year 1992 was simultaneously carefree and committed. The Cure’s spirits finally rose, but Rage against the Machine was also killing it.

Pepsi latched onto this moment with aplomb. It aired a television ad for Crystal Pepsi during the 1993 Super Bowl, set to Van Halen’s “Right Now,” itself an ‘80s sex-and-rock ’n’ roll band’s penance. The song’s original video featured the simple but earnest appeals to political action that characterized this moment—one could simultaneously live in the moment and also “turn this thing around,” as Sammy Hagar sung. Pepsi borrowed the trope wholesale. Like cola itself, activism could be a fun blend of commitment and insouciance. Activism could be militant and milquetoast all at once. The underdog captured an impressive 1% of the soft drink market before vanishing quickly into oblivion.

This week, PepsiCo reintroduced Crystal Pepsi for a limited time. 25 years hence, the pitch is pure nostalgia. Crystal Pepsi is reframed as an “iconic ‘90s clear cola.” A bizarre retro marketing campaign accompanies the relaunch, including a New York City concert featuring ‘90s staples like Salt N Pepa, Lisa Loeb, En Vogue, and Biz Markie, and a Crystal Pepsi-themed Oregon Trail-knockoff video game.

To anyone who was actually alive and cogent in 1992, it feels like a Twilight Zone perversion of early-90s nostalgia. Everything is identifiable but misshapen. Biz Markie’s glory days came just before Crystal Pepsi, and Lisa Loeb’s just after. Oregon Trail is a title of the 1970s and ‘80s, and the retro-website version of it Pepsi made recalls the mid- to late-90s. The game’s premise is mythico-sensationalist: the player sets out in search of the Crystal Pepsi Fountain, “the source of the long-lost taste you crave,” a far cry from the original promise of a familiar taste you couldn’t see. Players of Crystal Pepsi Trail must collect ‘90s icons along the anonymous “trail.” Among them, Tamagotchis and Furbies, trifles of the late 1990s that would have insulted the Doc Marten- and Birkenstock-shod audience for the original beverage. In the ultimate insult to an already foolhardy GenX nostalgia, Crystal Pepsi has been reimagined as an unrealizable, Ponce de Leónic millennial fantasy.

The result isn’t even bittersweet but just bitter, like a kola nut. By replacing Crystal Pepsi’s original promise of early-90s purification—clearwashed though it was—with a generic appeal to murky, childish recollection, Pepsi inadvertently reveals that clarity was never as unambiguously virtuous as anyone once thought it might be. It’s the lost dream of achievable purity for which sentimentality is warranted—even if undeserved.

PepsiCo circa 1992 endured some criticism for coopting Van Halen, but the band’s message was already undeniably saccharine. “Right Now” read like a soda ad way before Pepsi entered the picture. The company’s branded rendition was entirely compatible with it. “Right now, only wildlife needs preservatives,” the launch ad quips. Crystal Pepsi awakens a yearning for such a simple, accessible, and visible form of moral, political, ecological, and commercial righteousness. One you could dance to while printing Earth Day flyers from the ImageWriter II. (Even the relaunch is nostalgic for contra-corporate adbusting over conflict palm oil in Pepsi products.)

In place of the grubby, baby boomer hippie dream of universal peace and love, the early ‘90s put forward a tamed version of it, one compatible with the commercialized, technologized reality that the yuppies had refined from their own prior hippiedom. A future without compromise, where pure affect could spill through clear eyes and clear colas toward unadulterated progress.

The reality proved murkier. Soda itself is in a tailspin, for example. High fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and other artificial sweeteners are increasingly shunned. The original clear beverage, water, has outsold carbonated beverages for the first time this year. But even that accomplishment’s blessing is ambiguous. Bottled water produces more plastic waste than ever, for one part. And for another, one of the factors driving sales is the decay of American water infrastructure, a calamity the crisis in Flint, Michigan has brought to the public’s attention. Even the decline of the sugar-water business proves to be a double-edged sword.

Clarity is an ambiguous virtue today. It’s more frequently called “transparency” now, and the naive still advance it as a simple salve for all ills. But the ills of the early 1990s never left us. If anything, they doubled down, demonstrating how comparatively oversimplified issues like ozone depletion, statist territorialism, and rain forest conservation really were—simply being able to see the issues were supposed to lead to the implementation of their obvious remedies. Today that false dream remains, in the form of technological innovation that promises to “change the world” by producing an even more commercialized version of progress than we endured two decades ago. Would it be a step too far to call Silicon Valley one big, compostable bottle of Crystal Pepsi? Probably.

The nostalgia you drink when you drink a reissued Crystal Pepsi is not a nostalgia for taste, nor for the gewgaws of the 1990s, nor even for the youth that might have accompanied the original. It is a nostalgia for a moment when a new secular, global righteousness seemed simple enough that drinking a branded cola could legitimately contribute to it.