Karma Looming via YouTube
Karma Looming via YouTube

Fizzled Out: The New Coke Protests of 1985

Karma Looming via YouTube
Karma Looming via YouTube

“I'm mad,” Gay Mullins told the reporter from The Washington Post. “This makes me angry. I'm angry, and I'm mad. I feel injured. Betrayed. Like a sacred trust has been violated ... People are having anxiety headaches. They've been placed in a distressed state."

In 1985, scientists had discovered a hole in the ozone layer. TWA Flight 847 had been hijacked. But Mullins, a 57-year-old retired medical researcher from Seattle, had other concerns. He was speaking to the press about his outrage over the putrid, “soapy,” fizz-less mess he had recently made a show of pouring down a sewer drain.

His target: New Coke.

That April, the Coca-Cola Company had committed what would be one of the bigger consumer product blunders in modern times. Fearing rival Pepsi was encroaching on their market share, Coca-Cola tinkered with the recipe they had stuck to for the previous 99 years. The result, New Coke, was alleged to be a hit in research markets, with less of an acidic bite and more of a sweet, syrupy flavor—more like Pepsi.

Coke was certain their refined taste would lead to a dramatic increase in the liquid-sugar market share. They were wrong. Fans revolted, stockpiling original Coke and selling it at a markup. Thousands of calls and letters flooded the company’s Atlanta headquarters. Company spokespeople tried damage control in the press, their flop sweat practically staining newspaper pages.

Their most visible and vocal opponent was Mullins, who embodied the collective distaste for New Coke by spending $100,000 of his own money to form an activist group. He planned organized protests and became a familiar face on television newscasts, declaring New Coke’s existence was “totally un-American.”

People listened. Coke executives chewed their nails. Who was Gay Mullins? And was he really that serious about soda?

 

Gay Mullins was born in 1928, making him just old enough to experience the clean-up efforts following World War II. After the conflict ended, he was stationed in the Caribbean and was fond of sipping rum and Cokes in his downtime.

Some 40 years later, Mullins stepped away from work full-time, though he still dabbled in real estate. Sitting in a Seattle restaurant in late May 1985, Mullins and some of his friends began discussing the public relations disaster that was New Coke. Why, Mullins wondered, didn’t someone make a concentrated effort to unify the voices of all of the company’s angered customers?

New Coke had been conceived the year prior, when Coca-Cola began to experience a degree of paranoia about their status as the world’s top soft drink. In 1972, 18 percent of soda drinkers said they preferred Coca-Cola, with just 4 percent opting for Pepsi. By the early 1980s, that had receded dramatically: Pepsi now had an 11 percent approval rating, with Coke barely ahead at 12 percent.

Sensing that palates might have evolved to prefer Pepsi’s sweeter taste, Coca-Cola chemists toyed with a formula that delivered less of a fizzy bite. Testing in regional markets was highly encouraging: New Coke was preferred by a substantial margin.

With $4 million sunk into development costs, Coca-Cola launched New Coke in April 1985.

 
The backlash was swift. New Coke wasn’t a peripheral product, but a replacement for what would come to be known as “Classic” Coke, inciting a burst of negative feedback. Consumers had an emotional investment in the drink. A woman in Marietta, Georgia swung her umbrella at a driver stocking cases of the new flavor, yelling that it “tastes like sh*t.” Coke’s headquarters received upwards of 1500 calls a day, up from the usual 400, with virtually all of them complaining about the change. Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta received a letter addressed to the “Chief Dodo” of the company.

At this point, Mullins decided to enter the fray in a very high-profile manner. Having tasted and rejected New Coke, he used his retirement fund to form a coalition, the Old Soda Drinkers of America, and set up a bank of 900-number telephone lines in a Seattle office. For $5, anti-New Coke activists would receive newsletters, bumper stickers (“Coke Was It”), pins, and plans to hold rallies in their local areas. In Atlanta, picketers held up signs (“My Children Will Never Know Real Refreshment”).

Armed with hyperbole, Mullins quickly became a media favorite. Surrounded by his banks of telephones that cost $10,000 a week to maintain, he railed against the corporate blunder and vowed to do whatever it took to return Coke Classic to store shelves.

"How can they do this?" he told People. "They were guarding a sacred trust! Coca-Cola has tied this drink to the very fabric of America—apple pie, baseball, the Statue of Liberty. And now they replace it with a new formula, and they tell us just to forget it. They have taken away my freedom of choice. It's un-American!" The bland New Coke, he said, was “unbelievably wimpy.”

Rather than try to catch the odd disgruntled consumer on the street, television became addicted to Mullins, turning to him for sound bites. He was even scheduled to debate Coke executives on ABC’s Good Morning America, but the appearance was canceled. Mullins insisted Coke was running scared.

The company shied away from commenting on him in the press, with a spokesperson saying they “don’t pay much attention” to the anti-New Coke movement. But what Mullins did next would force a response.

Coca-Cola

 
In June 1985, the same month Pepsi gleefully announced a 14 percent spike in overall product sales, Mullins filed a class action lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Company in U.S. district court. Citing Fair Trade Commission rules about misleading product advertising, Mullins called for Coca-Cola to be restrained from packaging New Coke into Coke Classic cans. Mullins insisted they either comply or turn over the highly-guarded recipe so “someone else” could make the drink. The new stuff, he wrote in his complaint, tasted like Pepsi, which was an unforgivable slight.

Federal judge Walter McGovern tossed the complaint out in less than a week. “I like the taste of Pepsi,” he said.

It didn’t matter. On July 10, Coca-Cola finally capitulated, with Peter Jennings interrupting an ABC daytime soap to announce that the company would be bringing back its original drink. New Coke wouldn't disappear—at least, not immediately—but consumers could have a choice.

Mullins was elated. Though he had spent roughly $100,000 drumming up support for the cause, he said it was worth it to prove that consumers had a voice. In their first sensible marketing decision of the year, Coca-Cola decided to capitalize on Mullins’s advocacy by promising to send him the first new case of “old” Coke that rolled out of their Atlanta plant. In front of press, Mullins downed a can, then doused himself over the head with the rest. The 79-day drought was over.

Shortly after, Mullins reached out to Coca-Cola executives. He would be happy to continue his brand ambassadorship, he wrote, for a fee of $200,000 per public appearance.

It turned out that Mullins and his friends had concocted more of a business idea in that restaurant than a consumer advocacy group. According to Mullins, he figured Coca-Cola might pay him as much as $50,000 to shut up and perhaps more than that once the smoke cleared and he had made a name for himself. He also offered his services to Pepsi.

Both companies declined his advances. Mullins receded from the spotlight, leaving Coke to resume its status as the industry’s leading soft drink. Despite their blunder, Pepsi never charged ahead to claim the top spot.

While the company may have been slightly taken aback by Mullins’ offer, there was early evidence he might not have been as emotionally involved as he claimed. During the height of New Coke hysteria, The Seattle Times invited him to take a blind taste test. In six tries, Mullins failed to distinguish New Coke from Coke Classic. In at least one attempt, he sipped from a can of Royal Crown Cola and claimed it was authentic Coke. Despite his activism, he never once identified the real thing.

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Two of the Last Blockbuster Stores Are Closing
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The fact that Blockbuster still has three stores in the U.S. may come as a surprise, but the video rental chain's days are numbered. The brand's two branches in Alaska will be closing up shop next week, leaving only one last holdout in Bend, Oregon, according to Engadget.

"If you'd asked me 14 years ago, there's no way I'd thought we'd be the last one," Sandi Harding, General Manager of the Oregon store, tells Engadget. "It just seems a little crazy.”

Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010 but continued to license its logo to franchisees. In 2013, there were 13 remaining Blockbuster stores, and by 2016 there were nine. Many of these branches were located in Alaska, where internet is costly and many areas lack a broadband connection, making streaming difficult.

This alone wasn't enough to keep Blockbuster's Fairbanks and DeBarr Road locations in business, though. The stores will close July 16, but they'll reopen the following day for an inventory sale that will last until the end of August.

John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, became an unlikely champion of the DeBarr Road outlet last April when he bought the jockstrap worn by Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man for $7000 and donated it to the store in hopes of generating interest and foot traffic. It worked for a little while, but the effect was temporary and business dropped off once again. Indeed, the age of Netflix marks the end of an era.

[h/t Engadget]

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11 Facts About 7-Eleven on 7/11
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Happy 7-Eleven day! Don't forget to pick up a free Slurpee—and while you're enjoying the iconic slushie, read up on little-known tidbits about the popular company.

1. 7-ELEVEN STARTED IN 1927.

That was when Joe Thompson, an employee of the Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas, began selling eggs, milk, and bread from a makeshift storefront in one of the company’s icehouses. These bare necessities were kept cold thanks to the ice Southland produced, and local residents liked the convenience of avoiding the crowds and aisles of a regular grocery store if they only had to pick up a few items.

Thompson eventually bought out the ice company and started opening convenient little stores all over Texas. Shortly after, a company executive brought a souvenir totem pole back from a trip to Alaska, and set it in front of one of the busiest locations. Soon, the spot had earned the nickname the “Tote’m Store,” not only because of the totem pole, but because customers toted away their purchases. The company officially adopted the name and decorated their locations with an Inuit-inspired theme to match. The name changed to 7-Eleven in 1946 to reflect their new store hours—7:00am to 11:00pm—in order to capitalize on the post-World War II economic boom.

2. 7-ELEVEN'S NEW SCHEDULE WAS UNHEARD OF AT A TIME WHEN GROCERY STORES CLOSED MUCH EARLIER IN THE EVENING.

No one thought there would be demand for a store that was open 24/7—until one night in Austin in 1962. The local 7-Eleven had seen such a rush of students following a University of Texas football game that they were forced to stay open until dawn the next day. Sensing a trend, the store continued to stay open all night on the weekends, and soon more and more locations adopted the new schedule as well.

3. 7-ELEVEN IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST FRANCHISE COMPANIES. WITH MORE THAN 55,000 LOCATIONS.


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They beat out McDonald’s in 2007 and have since outgrown them by about 20,000 stores. Japan is the largest market with more than 20,000 stores under the name “Seven & I Holdings,” the parent company of 7-Eleven since 2005 [PDF]. America ranks among the top with 7896 locations, along with by Thailand and South Korea with more than 11000 and 7000 stores, respectively. And the company keeps growing, with a brand new store opening somewhere in the world every two hours of every day.

4. 7-ELEVEN RAN THE FIRST TELEVISION ADVERTISEMENT FOR A CONVENIENCE STORE IN 1949.

The ad touted their curbside grocery delivery service, and an animated rooster and owl reminded customers that the store was open early and closed late.

5. THE SLURPEE WAS INVENTED AT A DAIRY QUEEN.

In the late-1950s, Omar Knedlik of Kansas City owned a rundown Dairy Queen. When his soda fountain went on the fritz, he improvised by putting some bottles in the freezer to stay cool. However, when he popped the top, they were a little frozen and slushy. Folks loved them and started requesting "those pops that were in a little bit longer." Realizing he had a surprise hit on his hands, Knedlik built a specialized machine using the air conditioning unit from a car, and cranked out slushy soda by freezing a mixture of flavored syrup, water, and carbon dioxide to make it fizz. He called it an ICEE, but when the drink concept was licensed to 7-Eleven in 1965, the company’s marketing department renamed it the Slurpee after the sound made while sipping it through a straw.

6. EVERY YEAR SINCE 2002, 7-ELEVEN HAS GIVEN AWAY FREE SMALL SLURPEES TO CELEBRATE THE COMPANY'S BIRTHDAY ON JULY 11(7/11).

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On this one day, 7-Eleven gives away about 500,000 gallons of Slurpees ... in North America anyway. In Australia, where the ice cold drink is also very popular, Slurpees are given away on November 7 (written Down Under as 7/11) to the tune of about 270,000 gallons.

7. ALMOST ALL SLURPEE FLAVORS ARE CONSIDERED KOSHER PAREVE (FOOD THAT IS NEITHER MEAT NOR DAIRY).

There are a few, such as Diet Pepsi and the Jolly Rancher mixes, that are considered kosher dairy (due to the chemical tagatose in the artificial sweetener), while others, like the popular Piña Colada drink, are not certified at all. Some 7-Eleven stores get the machines themselves certified kosher as a selling point for their Jewish customers.

8. FOR 14 YEARS RUNNING, THE RULING SLURPEE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD HAS BEEN MANITOBA, CANADA.

The province has an average of over 188,000 Slurpees sold in five regional stores every month. According to 7-Eleven, Calgary—and America’s #1 Slurpee market, Detroit—are closing in on the champs, though. Maybe next year, guys.

As for the biggest-selling single Slurpee location in the world, that title goes to the 7-Eleven in Kennewick, Washington, which locals have dubbed “The Slurpee Factory.” But 7-Eleven crowns more than just a Slurpee king. According to 7-Eleven, Maryland is the leader in hot dog sales, Long Islanders drink the most coffee, and Utah residents can’t go anywhere without a Big Gulp in their cupholders.

9. SINCE THE 2000 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, 7-ELEVEN HAS RUN A PROMOTION CALLED "7-ELECTION."

Customers vote by purchasing special red or blue coffee cups printed with each candidate's name. The cups are scanned at check-out and automatically entered in this unscientific, but surprisingly accurate poll—in 2000 and 2004, the number of coffee cup votes and the number of actual popular votes for both candidates was only off by 1 or 2 percentage points. While 2008's 7-Elections results were still correct, they gave the election to Obama by a landslide—60 percent to 40 percent—when the margin was really only about 7 percent. The trend continued in 2012, as caffeine addicts went blue to the tune of 59 percent for Obama to 41 percent for Romney, while the actual vote wound up being 51 percent to 47 percent.

10. TO PROMOTE THE RELEASE OF THE SIMPSONS MOVIEIN 2007, 12 SELECT 7-ELEVENS IN NORTH AMERICA WERE CONVERTED INTO KWIK-E-MARTS.

That's the convenience store in Springfield owned by Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. At a cost of about $10 million, the 7-Eleven stores had their exterior signs replaced to reflect the fictitious store name and many of the products inside were modeled after those seen on the show. For example, customers could buy Krusty-O’s cereal, a limited edition Radioactive Man comic book, six packs of Buzz Cola, and even Squishees, the Simpsons version of the Slurpee. Sadly, Homer’s favorite swill, Duff Beer, was not available as the film being promoted was rated PG-13. Instead, they had a Duff Energy Drink with a label very similar to the animated brew. While not all locations were transformed into Kwik-E-Marts, special Simpsons merchandise was available at all 7-Eleven locations, including Homer’s own Woo-Hoo Blue Vanilla Slurpees with collectible straws.

11. 7-ELEVENS ARE DIFFERENT ALL AROUND THE WORLD.

In America, we see 7-Eleven as little more than a convenient place to grab a quick cup of coffee before work or a Big Gulp while we’re out running errands. But in other parts of the world, the shops are a lot more important to the local population. In Indonesia, for example, 7-Elevens are more like a hip, upscale coffeehouse where 65 percent of customers are under the age of 30. The stores offer free Wi-Fi, plenty of tables and chairs inside and out on the sidewalk, and often feature live musical performances. Young people gather there late into the night to socialize, work online, and eat local favorites like fried rice, tiny sandwiches filled with cheese or chocolate called pillow bread, and chicken katsu, a Japanese-style fried cutlet.

In Taiwan, 7-Elevens are more common than Starbucks in Seattle. In the capital city of Taipei, there are more than 4000 locations in a city of 23 million, with many city blocks capable of sustaining more than one location. Aside from purchasing local food and Slurpees, customers can pay credit card and utility bills, book travel arrangements, and buy small electronics like iPods. It’s also not unusual for people to have packages delivered to their closest 7-Eleven instead of their home, because it’s more convenient to pick it up late at night instead of trying to coordinate with a deliveryman. The government has even given into the popularity of the shops by allowing people to pay traffic tickets and property taxes there, and using them as a hub for special programs like health screenings.

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