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Fizzled Out: The New Coke Protests of 1985

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“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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13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers
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For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $9.1 billion this year on spooky goods, including a record $3.4 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, CEO of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a costume doesn’t always work.

1. SOME COSTUMES ARE JUST TOO OUTRAGEOUS FOR RETAIL

A woman models a scary nun costume for Halloween
iStock

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … BUT THERE ARE SOME LINES THEY WON’T CROSS.

Homeowners are scared by trick-or-treaters on Halloween
iStock

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta, a business that broke into the industry on the strength of their fake dreadlock wig in 1992. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. THEY CAN DESIGN AND PRODUCE A COSTUME IN A MATTER OF DAYS.

A man models a costume in front of a mirror
Rob Stothard/Getty Images

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. BEYONCE CAN HELP MOVE STALE INVENTORY.

A screen shot from Formation, a music video featuring Beyonce
beyonceVEVO, YouTube

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “Last year, we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. WOMEN DON’T USUALLY WEAR MASKS.

A man tries on a Joker mask at a retail store
Rhona Wise/Getty Images

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage last year.

6. FOOD COSTUMES ARE ALWAYS A HIT.

A dog wears a hot dog costume for Halloween
iStock

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.” Demand for these faux-edible costumes can occasionally get ugly: Rasta is currently suing Sears and Kmart for selling a banana costume that they allege infringes on Rasta’s copyrighted version, which has blackened ends and a vertical stripe.

7. ADDING ”SEXY” TO EVERYTHING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK.

A packaged Halloween costume hangs on a store rack
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. PEOPLE ASK FOR SOME WEIRD STUFF.

A person appears in a skull costume with glowing eyes for Halloween
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. THEY HAVE WORKAROUNDS FOR BIG PROPERTIES.

Go out to a party this year and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. PEOPLE LOVE SHARKS.

Singer Katy Perry appears on stage with two dancing sharks
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. DEAD CELEBRITIES MEAN SALES.

A portrait of Hugh Hefner hangs in the Playboy Mansion
Hector Mata/Getty Images

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.” This year, designers expect Hugh Hefner to fuel costume ideas—unless something else pops up suddenly to grab their attention. “Last year, when Prince died, that was almost trumped by [presidential debate audience member] Ken Bone,” Berman says. “He became almost more popular than Prince.”

12. THEY PROFIT FROM PEOPLE SHOPPING AT THE LAST MINUTE.

A man shops for Halloween costumes in a retail store
Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. IT’S NOT ACTUALLY A SEASONAL BUSINESS.

A woman shops for costumes in a retail store
Rhona Wise/Getty Images

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.” Weeks says he'll begin planning in May 2018—for Halloween 2019.

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This Just In
Target Expands Its Clothing Options to Fit Kids With Special Needs
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Target

For kids with disabilities and their parents, shopping for clothing isn’t always as easy as picking out cute outfits. Comfort and adaptability often take precedence over style, but with new inclusive clothing options, Target wants to make it so families don’t have to choose one over the other.

As PopSugar reports, the adaptive apparel is part of Target’s existing Cat & Jack clothing line. The collection already includes items made without uncomfortable tags and seams for kids prone to sensory overload. The latest additions to the lineup will be geared toward wearers whose disabilities affect them physically.

Among the 40 new pieces are leggings, hoodies, t-shirts, bodysuits, and winter jackets. To make them easier to wear, Target added features like diaper openings for bigger children, zip-off sleeves, and hidden snap and zip seams near the back, front, and sides. With more ways to put the clothes on and take them off, the hope is that kids and parents will have a less stressful time getting ready in the morning than they would with conventionally tailored apparel.

The new clothing will retail for $5 to $40 when it debuts exclusively online on October 22. You can get a sneak peek at some of the items below.

Adaptive jacket from Target.
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Adaptive apparel from Target.

Adaptive apparel from Target.

Adaptive apparel from Target.

[h/t PopSugar]

All images courtesy of Target.

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