Zomething Different: The Rise, Fall, and Recent Comeback of Zima

Two guys walk into a bar. They order beers. Bartender says they don’t have any beer. The men look confused. A stranger in a stylish hat suggests they try something different. They order a clear malt beverage. It’s on ice, clear, delicious. The men are happy.

The entire ad spot lasts 30 seconds, or roughly the same amount of time Zima could claim to be among the most popular adult beverages in the country.

In 1991, with beer sales on the decline across the industry, the Coors company of Golden, Colorado decided to blend two of the hottest trends in consumer marketing: “clear” products like Crystal Pepsi and the smooth, gently-intoxicating appeal of wine coolers. By using charcoal to filter the color and taste from their brews, they were able to deliver a vaguely citrus-tasting drink with 4.7 percent alcohol content. The company asked third-party marketing firm Lexicon Branding to give it a name; Jane Espenson, who would later become a staff writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Game of Thrones, dubbed it Zima, the Russian word for "winter."

Armed with a $180 million budget for the 1994 launch, Coors peppered television with commercials featuring a spokesman who exchanged his s's for z's. (“What’s your zign?”) They also pushed a slew of merchandising and even an early consumer-use product website.

The goal was to get Zima on the minds and into the hands of young males. Owing to the blanket advertising assault, that's exactly what they accomplished. Zima sold a staggering 1.3 million barrels’ worth of product in 1994, giving it a near-instant 1 percent market share in the booze industry. It was estimated that 70 percent of all drinkers tried the “malternative."

As Coors would soon learn, those numbers only work in your favor if people like the product. The company was disappointed to learn that many of them didn’t: Men found the taste off-putting. And those who enjoyed it were precisely the demographic they were looking to avoid.

Women who normally passed over beer embraced Zima, giving it an effete quality that marketing considered to be grim death for the valued male customer base. If a man couldn’t feel manly taking a pull of the clear stuff, he'd be likely to reach for something else.

On the public relations side, Coors was also having to defend itself against charges that teenagers were growing fond of Zima because its smell was harder to detect than regular beer (it had almost no odor) and was easier to consume out in the open. A rumor surfaced that Zima wouldn’t set off a breathalyzer, which Coors was forced to debunk in letters addressed to police chiefs and school officials.

Raelene Gutlerrez via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Unfortunately, being in the beer business and having to write letters to superintendents means that something has already gone very wrong. By 1995, Zima's sales dropped by half; in 1996, they dropped nearly in half again. David Letterman began mocking it on his talk show. Coors tried to entice the hip crowd, launching Zima Gold, which had a more liquor-like taste, but they weren’t fooled. Zima XXX and its higher-volume alcohol content (5.9 percent) followed, all to diminishing returns.

Nothing could recapture that early intrigue: Citing poor sales, Coors, which eventually merged with Miller to become MillerCoors, discontinued Zima in 2008—but that wasn't quite the end.

In 2014, The Japan Times reported that Zima was a popular order in Tokyo bars. The drink’s advertising campaign was focused on appearing cool to young Japanese men, who apparently order it without fear of coming off like a party lightweight. And in summer 2017, MillerCoors banked on nostalgia to fuel a Zima comeback: The brewer has resurrected the suds-free beverage for a limited time through Labor Day.

When the French Village of Pont-Saint-Esprit Went Temporarily Mad

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On August 15, 1951, dozens of people became terribly ill in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a quaint commune in the south of France. In the days that followed, hundreds more joined them. They complained of nausea and stomach pain, weak blood pressure and faint pulses, cold sweats and low temperatures. Worst of all, everybody had insomnia and smelled. “A state of giddiness persisted accompanied by abundant sweating and a disagreeable odour,” reported the British Medical Journal [PDF]. People would compare the stench to the fragrance of dead mice.

For hundreds of victims, that’s where the inexplicable mass illness stopped. For others, it was only the beginning. Dozens upon dozens of people began experiencing nightmarish hallucinations.

The town became gripped in pandemonium. A little girl screamed as she was chased by man-eating tigers. A woman sobbed about how her children had been ground into sausages. A large man fended off terrific beasts by smashing his furniture. A husband and wife ran around, chasing each other with knives. Even the local animals had gone mad: A dog chewed on stones until its teeth chipped away. Ducks began marching like penguins.

Everywhere, people ran wildly as they tried to avoid imaginary flames. One man, convinced that red snakes were devouring his brain, jumped out of a window. Another reportedly leapt from a window, broke both legs, stood up, and continued running.

Outside, a local postal worker complained that he was shrinking. A person sprinted down the lane, claiming he was being chased by “bandits with donkey ears.” Near the Rhône river, a man—convinced that he was a circus tightrope walker—attempted to balance his way across the cables of a suspension bridge. Another tried to jump into the river, only to be saved by friends. “I am dead and my head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach and they are burning me!” he yelled [PDF].

(Not everybody was having a bad experience. Some people, according to The New York Times, “heard heavenly choruses, saw brilliant colors … the world looked beautiful to them.” It was an especially productive experience for the head of the local farmers' co-op, who began writing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of luminous poetry.)

But overall, the scene was apocalyptic. “I have seen healthy men and women suddenly become terrorized, ripping their bed sheets, hiding themselves beneath their blankets to escape hallucinations,” the mayor of Pont-Saint-Esprit, Albert Hébrard, said. Asylums were filled with people wrapped in straitjackets and tied to beds. According to the British Medical Journal, “Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation.”

By the time the mass illness had subsided, approximately 300 people had been in some way affected. At least four died. In the immediate aftermath, the outbreak was blamed on … bread [PDF].

The summer of 1951 was especially wet, and ergot fungi grew all over the country's rye fields. Tainted grains were sourced back to the Roch Briand bakery, where a miller had used fungus-contaminated flour, causing widespread poisoning. The last time ergotism—or what's colorfully known as Saint Anthony’s Fire—had reportedly struck France, it was 1816.

Today, ergot poisoning remains the most commonly accepted explanation of what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit, though there have been competing theories. Just weeks after the incident, the president of France’s miller’s union, Pierre Jacob, refused to acknowledge the ergot explanation, Reuters reported. Jacob argued that ergot was always present in French flour and, therefore, could not be responsible. To prove his point, he offered to eat ergot-tainted bread in front of a group of experts [PDF]. (There's no record of whether he actually completed the stunt.)

Other theories blamed mercury, fungicide, and various other types of fungus. Some people claimed it was the water used to make the bread, and not the grain, that had been infected.

And, of course, there are conspiracy theories.

In 2009, writer Hank P. Albarelli Jr. claimed that he found a fishy document belonging to the CIA. It contained this label: “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson Files. SO Span/France Operation file, inclusive Olson. Intel files. Hand carry to Belin—tell him to see to it that these are buried.”

According to the BBC, Frank Olson was a CIA scientist researching LSD; David Belin was executive director of the White House commission investigating the CIA's abuses. Were these men connected to the Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning? Was it some kind of hidden CIA LSD experiment? Or was the CIA—which was certainly studying psychoactive substances at the time—simply curious about what had happened in southern France?

Steven L. Kaplan, a bread historian at Cornell University, who wrote extensively about the fallout from the outbreak in a French-language tome titled The Cursed Bread, doesn’t buy into the CIA conspiracy theory. LSD, he says, was an unlikely culprit; the symptoms suffered by residents don't match those caused by the hallucinogen. But he’s not convinced that ergot was the cause, either.

Which raises the question: If not ergot or LSD, then what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit in the summer of 1951?

The Most Popular Halloween Candy in Each State

If you've ever argued that no one actually likes candy corn, you're probably not from Alabama, Iowa, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, or Rhode Island. The controversial confection is a favorite treat among residents in those states, according to sales data from online candy retailer CandyStore.com.

As they've done for more than a decade, the bulk candy retailer combed through 11 years of data (with a particular focus on the months leading up to All Hallows' Eve) to gauge America’s top-selling sweets. They created the interactive map below to display their results.

Source: CandyStore.com.

In addition to the divisive—yet classic—candy corn, Skittles, M&Ms, Snickers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Starburst were among the nation's favorite candies. Hot Tamales, Tootsie Pops, Jolly Ranchers, and Sour Patch Kids have all earned some candy lovers' devotion, too.

Some states are unique in their top candy choices: Mississippi was the only state to name 3 Musketeers the best, while Connecticut opted for Almond Joy and West Virginia showed their love of Blow Pops. Meanwhile, trick-or-treaters in Kentucky have a sweet tooth for Swedish Fish, Louisianans love Lemonheads, and Delawareans would die for Life Savers.

After seeing which treat is number one in your state, check out the chart below to learn how many pounds of each top-ranking candy are consumed in each state (and then go buy a new toothbrush).

Source: CandyStore.com

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