New Coke at Nineteen: It’s Not News Anymore

Greg W. Prince

@@img1 In a recent episode of The Sopranos, there was a subtle gag about a mob guy who’d gotten out of the can after being convicted in the mid-’80s. The only suit he had to wear upon his release was a white linen job popularized on Miami Vice.

If Don Johnson can be viewed as ancient, why is new Coke still with us?

No, it’s not on the shelf of your friendly local beverage retailer, nor is it out on DVD. Unlike, say, Pabst Blue Ribbon, there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell revival for it. But new Coke is here. You can feel its presence.

We just passed the 19th birthday of new Coke, which came into this world on April 23, 1985. The story is old enough to vote.

As every schoolkid in America knows, new Coke was the reformulated version of the world’s best-known consumer product, Coca-Cola. What seemed like a reasonable idea to some of the industry’s all-time greatest minds-long-term sales trends and taste tests supported it-was greeted by the public, the media and the bevnoscenti with all the warmth one usually reserves for termites in the basement or a letter from the IRS. New Coke was the best thing to happen to everybody from Pepsi-Cola to Johnny Carson. Everybody had a great laugh except Coke.

Within three months, Coca-Cola Classic came to Coke’s rescue and reclaimed the throne. Five years later, new Coke, which hung on in a dwindling number of markets as part of an unplanned brand family, morphed into Coke II for its handful of hardcore fans-read the BevBoards on this site and you’ll learn everything has hardcore fans.

Sometime in the 1990s, Coke II made like an old soldier and faded away. It went off the air less like Friends and more like My Mother The Car. With it disappeared the final vestiges of the most fervently talked about soft drink brand in history.

Except new Coke has never left the lexicon. Everybody who wants to make a point that something isn’t popular or is ill-conceived or may not work or shouldn’t be taken at face value has a no-brainer analogy within an arm’s reach of desire.

Just a touch of Internet research found Courtney Love comparing herself to new Coke (she’s not well-liked); the Bush-Cheney administration likened to new Coke (they’re not to be trusted); Macintosh OS X cast in the same light as new Coke (management was thought to outsmart itself with an unnecessarily updated product); fans warning that the reconstituted Morning Edition on NPR would prove to be audio new Coke (thanks to the unseating of host Bob Edwards).
Whatever it is we used to use as shorthand for consumer product disaster-Tareyton Cigarettes? The Hindenburg?-has been off the hook since 1985.

If The Coca-Cola Company could move beyond new Coke, why can’t the rest of the world? Better question, why can’t the beverage universe get new Coke out of its head?

It’s 2004, and Pepsi and Coke are getting attention this spring, too. The angle is low-carb, mid-calorie. Pepsi Edge and Coca-Cola C2 are the names in the news. The news isn’t as big as it was in 1985, but it could be meaningful.

Each is a cola with fewer calories than regular, more calories but more satisfaction than diet. It’s a tactic that’s been tried before but never when a measurable portion of the population has had Atkins fever. The time, those marketers say, is right to try, try again.

So if you want to draw a comparison, previous mid-cal moments like Pepsi XL or Jake’s would seem appropriate to reference. But what do you suppose is the pull-tab reaction to a new beverage, particularly one from Coca-Cola?

“The Coca-Cola Company’s C2, the next big cola revolution-or maybe the next new Coke-debuted to the retailers who are key to its success.”

That was the lead from an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on the sneak sip Coke gave attendees at the Food Marketing Institute’s convention the first weekend in May. Nobody covers Coke with the informed sense of purpose that its hometown paper does, but why does new Coke have to come up? If you hadn’t noticed, C2 is an extension to Coke’s most enduring line, not a permanent substitute.

An Associated Press dispatch took the same tack, quoting a Coke spokesman who “dismissed the notion that Coca-Cola C2 might become another new Coke, a new taste the company introduced in 1985 as a replacement for its regular soda, only to see it rejected by consumers. ‘This is a completely different proposition, an addition to the portfolio, not a replacement,'” the spokesman said.

Why is that so hard for people to understand? Why does new Coke haunt virtually every large CSD introduction? Is it really that top-of-mind? We’re talking almost two decades here. Granted, we seem to have a hard time putting the past behind in this country-witness the two presidential campaigns arguing over which candidate did and didn’t do what during the Vietnam War-but in what way is 1985 relevant to 2004?

Miami Vice didn’t last forever. When producers pitch new hourlong dramas to the networks, are they rebuffed with “I don’t know.Miami Vice was an hourlong drama and it was cancelled”? Did the critics dismiss Alias because “Jennifer Garner could be looking at a Don Johnson-type career trajectory”?

New Coke was a helluva story because it was unique. Unique means one of a kind. Remember it, toast it every April 23 if you’re so inclined, but when it comes to looking for another one just like it, forget it.

Greg W. Prince ( has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.