How Diet Coke Became the World's Liquid Crack of Choice


Diet Coke turns 30 this year, and despite health concerns and an rocky advertising trajectory (remember Paula Abdul dancing with dead celebrities?), the Thank-God-It’s-Not-Sugar-But-Hopefully-Aspartame-Won’t-Kill-You beverage is doing better than ever. Diet Coke has held the title of second most popular soda in the world (after regular Coke) for two years running — 40% of colas currently sold are either Diet Coke or Coke Zero — and it seems like more people are now drinking it for the taste instead of as a diet aid. But it wasn’t always this way.

When Diet Coke was introduced in 1982, “it was too new to be cool,” Zoe Williams recalls. “So it was very uncool not to drink it, but it wasn’t totally cool to drink it either.” While most people in the 80s were busy making horrible decisions regarding leg warmers and cocaine, the brand made headway with two genius moves. The first was buying Columbia Pictures as champions of product placement, guaranteeing that actors would be chugging Diet Coke for decades to come. Second, it differentiated itself from TaB, a title so associated with “diet” drinks that even literally putting Diet in its new moniker made the beverage more successful.

The brand has tried to experiment over the past decade with little success; the public knows what it wants, and it wants its Diet Coke. There was 2005’s Coke Zero, which was practically the same as Diet Coke but meant to appeal to men who were too embarrassed to drink a sissy weight loss beverage like all those weight-obsessed ladies out there. Apparently, though, those men don’t actually exist, because no one bought Coke Zero, despite its sleek packaging and uber-manly, throw-caution-to-the-wind “Enjoy everything” tagline. Oops.

Then, in 2007, Diet Coke launched Diet Coke Plus with “fortified vitamins and minerals.” Maybe the brand would’ve had more luck calling it Diet Coke Oxymoron? “People didn’t want vitamins in their drink, because the last thing you want to be reminded of while you’re drinking artificial sweetener is the health-giving bounty of the natural world,” Williams writes of its failure. “If I had to accompany Diet Coke with anything, I’d want it to be freeze dried space food.” (Or spicy food; “I only drink Diet Coke with Mexican/Chinese/Indian” is the “I only smoke when I’m drunk” for soda addicts.)

Researchers have been trying for years to definitively prove that aspartame is bad for you. They haven’t had any luck so far, but we’re still pretty sure Diet Coke is something we shouldn’t be constantly imbibing. Will Diet Coke become less popular as we collectively become more obsessed with Farm-to-Table eating? (Michael Pollan would probably rather eat a genetically modified ear of corn than drink a can of DC.) Maybe not. “There are a lot of ways to give yourself a bone disease, and they are not all as enjoyable as Diet Coke,” Williams says, arguing that one reason it’s so popular is because it’s a publicly palatable way to rebel:

The appeal of the drink in public life is, I believe, for the sorts of people who aren’t allowed to have a visible vice to show that they have the devil in them somewhere. Bill Clinton famously loved Diet Coke (in fairness to him, he had no need to manifest his saturnine desires with a soft drink. So he just probably likes the taste). Barack Obama loves it (I like to think it’s something he wishes he didn’t drink. You can’t imagine in his best self, when he and Michelle get together to work out their weight targets for the year, pledging to drink more Diet Coke.)

Diet Coke haters might not understand its pervasive appeal on the eve of its 30th birthday, but, as Williams writes, “Everybody else will understand how it came of age – it’s because it’s delicious.”

Also, can we all agree that fountain > glass bottle > can > plastic bottle? Thank you.

Diet Coke at 30: what is its enduring appeal? [Guardian]

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