This week’s entry: This column takes its name from Wikipedia’s unique ability to hold your attention through link after link after link, until you’ve reached a destination with seemingly no connection to your starting point. In that spirit, Wiki Wormhole is making its first attempt at serialized storytelling, following a link from last week’s Max Headroom incident to a product the real Headroom was a sponsor of: the ill-fated New Coke.
What it’s about: In 1985, Coca-Cola, celebrating its 100th anniversary, and a reign nearly long as America’s favorite soft drink, decided to change its formula. Pepsi had been eroding Coke’s sizable share of the market, especially among young people, and Coke’s executives decided that the reason wasn’t Pepsi’s youth-based advertising, but instead its sweeter taste. They came up with a new, sweeter formula for Coke that beat both Pepsi and Coke in internal taste tests. So the company decided to change the formula of the most successful soft drink of all time, only after rejecting equally good ideas like betting on the Washington Generals or setting the building on fire. The result was an infamous debacle, as the company realized only in hindsight that they had built up their signature product to the status of America icon, and Americans do not want their icons messed with. After widespread complains, boycotts, and even threats from bottlers, Coke reintroduced the original formula—almost—as Coca-Cola Classic just 77 days later, to widespread rejoicing.
Strangest fact: The only person who lost their job over New Coke was Bill Cosby. Despite a very vocal backlash against New Coke, the change actually helped the company in the long run. The novelty of the new formula pushed sales up in most of the country—apart from the South, where “Coke” is synonymous with “soft drink,” and the backlash was the strongest—and then the triumphant return of “Classic Coke,” which began gaining ground against Pepsi as America’s love affair with the drink began anew. As the change in formula didn’t cost the company sales, not one person was fired or reprimanded, and the only person to leave Coke’s employ was Cosby. The comedian became one of America’s most successful pitchmen by selectively endorsing products the public believed that Cosby believed in. Coke’s then-PR director stated that the “three most believable personalities [in America] are God, Walter Cronkite, and Bill Cosby.” Cosby believed his credibility had been hurt, by first claiming that Coke was superior to Pepsi because it was less sweet, then endorsing a sweeter version of Coke, which was quickly spurned by consumers and the manufacturer. Fortunately for the Cos, Jell-O remains unchanged throughout the ages.
Biggest controversy: No topic is safe from conspiracy theories, even sugar water. Or should we say, high fructose corn syrup water. When the original formula returned as Classic Coke, it wasn’t the original formula—Coke took the opportunity to switch all of its bottlers from sugar to corn syrup, a cheaper substitute. (Some bottlers had made the switch before New Coke.) To this day, some people insist that New Coke was a bait-and-switch, as Coke intentionally released an unpopular new drink, knowing they could reintroduce a slightly different original to a grateful public. While this is in fact what happened, there’s no indication it was part of a master plan. As Donald Keough, the company’s president at the time said, “We’re not that dumb. And we’re not that smart.”
Thing we were happiest to learn: Everybody gets a second chance, even a famous misstep. After Classic Coke retook the throne as America’s favorite soft drink, New Coke remained on the market. After some fumbling, Coke realized they could still use the new formula for its original purpose—winning the youth market away from Pepsi. Cosby was replaced by Max Headroom, a “computer-generated” smartass (who was in fact actor Matt Frewer, made up with latex to look digital) who attacked Pepsi in a popular series of ads. New Coke stayed on the market for a few more years, eventually being renamed Coke II in 1992—a name suggested by young ad agency employee and future Cannes Caméra D’Or winner Miranda July—and hanging on in some markets for another 10 years.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: You just can’t predict the future. The linchpin of Pepsi’s advertising in the 1980s was the Pepsi Challenge, a blind taste test between Pepsi and Coke. Obviously, only the people who chose Pepsi made it into the commercials, but it planted the idea in the public consciousness not only that Pepsi tasted better, but that a blind taste test is an accurate way of determining what drink people prefer. While Coca-Cola was debating changing Coke’s formula, they did numerous taste tests, which New Coke won hands down, which is why the company was unprepared when the formula didn’t win over the wider public. Only recently did Malcolm Gladwell delve into whether taste tests actually work. His research determined that a drink that wins a “sip test” like the Pepsi Challenge isn’t necessarily enjoyable over the long term. Besides that, people’s reactions aren’t based purely on taste—tasters can be influenced by other people’s reactions, and consumers can be influenced by packaging, an area where Gladwell believes Coke has an advantage among people who don’t prefer either drink strictly by taste.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Gladwell’s idea that a drink’s packaging can influence the consumer’s taste preference can be considered a form of sensation transference, or synesthesia, the neurological disorder in which people have been known to attach colors to letters, numbers, or particular sounds, or feel tactile sensation when hearing the right sound.
Futher down the wormhole: New Coke’s page links to fellow failed soft drink OK Soda, which Coca-Cola introduced to test markets in 1993 in an attempt to court Generation X, before pulling it off the market just seven months later. In order to court disaffected youth, the drink’s ad campaign attempted to play off of GenX’s cynicism towards advertising. This anti-advertising included what Wikipedia calls “thought reform” sayings, although the phrase is linked to mind control, which in turn leads to unethical human experimentation in the United States, which will be next week’s topic.