Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of one of the biggest moments of pop culture of my formative years. Since I’m going to be engrossed in a certain someone’s wedding reception, I’ll get to it today.
And it all revolved around a soft drink, one which had changed its formula less than three months prior.
On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola announced a new formula, one which was supposed to be sweeter than the original, which had been unchanged since cocaine was removed from the list of ingredients at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. While Coca-Cola was still the number one drink of choice throughout the south, including my hometown of New Orleans, it was losing share rapidly to Pepsi in other parts of the United States.
In fact, my dad refused to drink Coca-Cola. That’s right, my mother, who was drinking Diet Coke by 1985 after switching from TaB, the only diet beverage The Coca-Cola Company had in its portfolio prior to 1982, bought my dad Pepsi. He grew up in Russell, and Kansas was big on Pepsi, not Coca-Cola. In a lot of states outside of the old Confederacy, Coca-Cola was associated with the South, with the losing side in the Civil War, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s when my dad was growing up, Coca-Cola was also derisively called “Redenck Cola” by many northerners, more than a few of whom associated Coca-Cola with racism and the Jim Crow laws which ordered separate facilities for whites and Negroes. .
Coca-Cola’s headquarters are in Atlanta, a progressive city in a state which was still ruled by the rural white interests at that time. Even though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got his start preaching in Atlanta’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church, Georgia still elected notorious racist Lester Maddox as governor in 1966. In the Democratic primary, Maddox defeated a peanut farmer from Plains who also favored segregation. Unfortunately, we had not heard the last of James Earl Carter Jr.
Pepsi was considered “Yankee Cola” by many in the south and still is in many areas, although Pepsi has a strong presence in Alabama, thanks to the Buffalo Rock bottling plant in Birmingham, which distributes Pepsi throughout the Yellowhammer State. In fact, the Alabama Crimson Tide are sponsored by Pepsi, the only Southeastern Conference school to buck Coca-Cola. But in many southern restaurants which serve Pepsi–including Dreamland Barbecue and Baumhower’s Wings in Alabama–waiters and waitresses must ask if Pepsi is okay when someone asks for a Coca-Cola.
What most people don’t realize is Pepsi was started in Raleigh. As in the capital of North Carolina. Last I checked, North Carolina was one of the 11 Confederate states.
Coca-Cola hired Bill Cosby as its main spokesperson for New Coke. However, even the star of the number one show in prime time TV at the time could not convince loyal Coca-Cola drinkers that the New Coke was better than the old formula.
Some people were afraid of the switch to the point they hoarded the old formula. One such man was Gay Mullins, a retired advertising executive from Seattle. He borrowed $120,000 and around Memorial Day started a new club, The Old Coke Drinkers of America. He began to lobby Coca-Cola headquarters, including CEO Roberto Gouizeta, to bring back to the original formula.
Pepsi took advantage of the apathy over New Coke and began to heavily cut into the market share of its archrival.
Although Gouizeta was a staunch defender of New Coke right up until his 1997 death, he finally relented to public pressure, and on July 11, 1985, Coca-Cola Classic was born and quickly returned to the shelves.
How important was the reintroduction of the old formula? ABC News interrupted General Hospital (in the Eastern and Central time zones), One Life To Live (Mountain) and All My Children (Pacific) for a special bulletin, which was announced by World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings. My mother was addicted to AMC and OLTL in the mid-1980s, but she did not watch General Hospital. Thankfully for her, Jennings’ interruption did not affect her as much as it might have.
By July 1986, Coca-Cola Classic was far outselling New Coke. By 1991, New Coke had disappeared from the shelves in the Big Easy.
Buffalo Wild Wings switched from Coca-Cola to Pepsi in early 2014. I was upset Coke Zero was no longer on the menu, but as you can see, it has not stopped me from going and going and going and going.
In case you’re curious, TaB is still around, although it can only be found in certain areas, like Kansas City. Much like Pibb Xtra and Pibb Zero, the former Mr. Pibb, which is not available in Russell, Hays, Wichita, Hutchinson and most of northwest Kansas.
Maybe Billy Joel had it right in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”….rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!