I grew up as a part of “The Pepsi Generation,” and although the ad people told us, “Things Go Better With Coke,” I could never figure out what things they were talking about. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Pepsi seemed sweeter and lighter to my immature taste buds, while Coke had a stronger, almost medicinal flavor. Royal Crown Cola, or “RC,” was somewhere in the middle and made an acceptable substitute. But I wasn’t a diehard. When we went to the store, we bought Pepsi unless Coke was on sale and when I dropped my dime in the vending machine slot, it didn’t really matter as long as it was cola. Fast forward to adulthood.
Have you ever noticed that nothing tastes the same as it did when you were a kid? Think about it. How many times have you taken a bite or a sip of something you've always enjoyed before only to come away with the vague feeling that it was somehow different than it used to be? This is especially true, it seems, if you are a member of the "over forty" set. Maybe even "over thirty," I don't know.
In the case of Coke vs. Pepsi, it really is true: Coke doesn't taste the same as it did when I was a kid and you can thank "New Coke" for that.
Despite years of billing itself as "The Real Thing," the Coca Cola Company took a weird left turn in 1985 and came up with a new and supposedly sweeter formula for its flagship product. “New Coke,” as it came to be called, was such an unmitigated disaster that a quarter-century later it still tops most lists of marketing fiascos. “New Coke” only lasted a miserable couple of months before “The Powers That Be” in Atlanta took the heads that their customers had handed them and put them back on their shoulders rather than where many thought they had been when the decision was made to so radically alter an American icon.
Enter “Coke Classic,” or “Classic Coke,” the chastised soft-drink giant’s apology and mea culpa for its egregious error. But was this new “classic” really the same as the old “classic?” Not so much. Because now the new “old Coke” was flavored with high-fructose corn syrup rather than the pure cane sugar that powered the old “old Coke.” And, “classic” or not, anybody with taste buds could tell the difference. The product developers and marketing wizards behind the whole debacle apparently were ignorant of the old adage, “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ‘em biscuits.” And I became a confirmed Pepsi drinker.
It wasn’t just me. Pepsi had always been considered by most people to be the sweeter of the two colas. When Coke decided that it wanted to be Pepsi instead of Coke, I decided that I would just drink real Pepsi instead. And when Coke tried to pass off its corn syrup concoction as a reincarnation of its original brand, my tongue and my brain got together and said, “No way. We’re sticking with Pepsi.”
Not that Pepsi wasn’t also using the cheaper sweetener by now, but somehow they did it better. It didn’t materially affect the taste of the product as much.
Does anybody remember Jolt Cola? It came out about the same time that Coke was flushing its brains and its profits down an Atlanta sewer. Its big hook was “All the sugar and twice the caffeine.” And it tasted like Coke was supposed to taste. Until they, too, switched to corn syrup, bagged the slogan, and became just another generic cola.
If you happen upon a Whole Foods store, pop in and pop open a can of their store brand cola. It is sweetened with pure cane sugar and tastes like Coke used to taste back in the good old days. Okay, it’s caffeine-free, so what’s the point, but it still tastes like old, non-classic, non-new Coke. And in spite of the pricier ingredients, it’s not that much more expensive.
In their attempts to make it cheaper, Hershey and Nestle have ruined American chocolate. Nestle also owns the Stouffer’s product line these days and they have done the same thing with cheese that they did with chocolate, rendering Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese a cheap, tasteless imitation of its former self. Such is the case with Coke and Pepsi. The real loser in the “Cola Wars” is the consumer.
Which tastes better, Pepsi or Coke? Neither one tastes as good as it used to, but twenty-five years after Coke’s attempted murder of its sacred cow and its subsequent ritual suicide, Pepsi is now closer to being “The Real Thing.”