Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail

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iStock

In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

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