Sweet Nothing—the Triumph Of Diet Soda

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But while sales of Tab and Patio ran neck and neck in the mid-sixties, both were losing out to Diet Rite. In 1995 a reporter named Glenn Vaughn looked back across 30 years to summarize the state of the struggle. “Viewing it as a trade-off with their lead beverage, Pepsi bottlers showed little enthusiasm for Patio Cola, so it never really went anywhere. Tab, too, limped along. Even after these two competitors got rolling, Diet Rite maintained as big a share of the diet-cola market as Tab and Patio combined.”

But a few years after the introduction of both Tab and Patio, Donald Kendall, a former syrup sales representative, became CEO of Pepsi-Cola, and made a decision that would change the diet-soda industry. Eschewing the common wisdom that diet sodas should be distanced from their more heavily caloried counterparts, Kendall rebranded Patio Diet Cola as Diet Pepsi in 1963, making his the first big soda company to give its diet line the same name as its flagship product.

After endless days of screening new names like Abzu, Zap, and Zuff, Coca-Cola settled on Tab.

In an interview with the industry journal Beverage World in 1998, Kendall said his decision had more to do with economic pragmatism than vision: “The facts were, we didn’t have enough money to advertise two different products… .The legal people, the research people, everybody thought this was a crazy idea. But we decided to go ahead and put it in a couple of markets. We put it in Detroit and Louisville, Kentucky, to test it. And I went out every weekend to Detroit and to Louis-ville to find out what was happening. You still had returnable bottles then, and when I saw those returnable bottles coming back by the load, I decided to run with it… .That way we could advertise it under one umbrella. It was so successful that Coke had to change from Tab to Diet Coke.”

In the meantime the success of diet sodas had not gone unnoticed by the sugar industry. In 1964 Diet Rite came out with an advertising campaign suggesting that the sugar industry was spreading false information about it. The ad contained an amazing sort of corporate poem, which suggests how important Diet Rite was becoming to its makers.

If it’s wrong to do millions of people a favor by taking the sugar out of cola … Diet-Rite pleads guilty. If it’s wrong to help relieve American families of worry about overweight (and things like that) … Diet-Rite Cola pleads guilty. If it’s wrong to bring you the best cola you’ve ever tasted and to do it without sugar … Diet-Rite pleads guilty. If it’s wrong to start a cola revolution that more and more families are joining each week … Diet-Rite pleads guilty. But judge for yourself. Taste-test sugar-free Diet-Rite against any other cola sugar-free or sugar-full You’ll find Diet-Rite Cola is winner by a mile. Maybe that’s why the sugar people are so nervous.

As much as the sugar industry may have fretted, there were also significant failures in the enemy camp: Not every diet soda flourished, and many have been more or less forgotten. The New York Times article that heralded the debut of Coke’s Tab and Pepsi’s Patio Diet Cola also announced, with equal fan-fare, the introduction, from the Hoffman Beverage Company, of “a new beverage known as LoLo Cola,” while mentioning, too, “Vernors 1-Calorie, Bubble-Up’s, Sugar-Free and products produced by Hines and other companies.” One column on new food reported glowingly of the unfortunate, and with any luck entirely forgotten, Coolo-Coolo: “The preparation of refreshing low-calorie fruit-flavored cold beverages is ever so easy with Coolo-Coolo, a pre-sweetened soft drink base being introduced in this area by the Standard Milling company. Coolo-Coolo comes in the form of a concentrated liquid sealed in heavy plastic envelopes and in four flavors—strawberry, orange, grape, and cherry. All you do is snip open the pouch of concentrate, combine it with water, and chill, and each packet makes a quart of flavorsome beverage.”

The existence of dozens of equally now-obscure offerings helps explain just how big the soda industry sensed the diet boom was becoming. For a while it appeared that any company with a beverage division and able to concoct a repetitive, meaningless name was ready to put out its own combination of cyclamates and carbonated water.

Some of the diet sodas introduced in this era stuck, however, and Coca-Cola created a number of them. Stung by his company’s tardy entrance into the diet soda world, Paul Austin launched several unequivocal successes. In 1965 the Wall Street Journal could write: “Coca-Cola is contending for the top spot in low-calorie beverage sales. This summer the company began test marketing its second entry in the field, a citrus-based drink called Fresca.” Fresca was marketed in the sixties—and has been ever since—as an adult soft drink, a companion to Smirnoff Vodka and Gordon’s gin. Coca-Cola clearly stated its goal in releasing Fresca: No mere “diet soda,” this was to be “a soft drink, a low-calorie beverage, and a mixer, all in one.”

But before the diet-soda world could become overconfident, it was badly shaken by a legal and medical decision about the very thing that made the new drinks possible.