Sweet Nothing—the Triumph Of Diet Soda

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The second trend is harder to substantiate, but the media and public are slowly picking up on it. The era of the “diet” soda may be coming to an end. This is not because consumers are rejecting artificial sweeteners and diet sodas. On the contrary, diet-soda sales have become so strong that they threaten to eclipse, at least domestically, those of soda with sugar and calories. But in the past several years, soda names containing the word diet are being phased out in favor of names using the words zero or light . Diet Sprite is now called Diet Sprite Zero, and is poised to drop the Diet . A recent New York Times article confirms this trend is taking hold:

“The Pepsi-Cola Company division of PepsiCo last month changed the name of the diet version of its lemon-lime soda, Sierra Mist, to Sierra Mist Free. Both Sierra Mist Free and Diet Sprite Zero are being promoted in multimillion-dollar campaigns on television, in print, on posters and in stores… . The terms ‘free’ and ‘zero’ are intended mainly to help update perceptions of sugarless soft drinks, because research shows the word ‘diet’—which emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a more modern way to say ‘dietetic’—can carry unwanted baggage, par-ticularly among young-er men.

“‘There’s a language of “diet” that’s very unappealing,’ said Rony Zibara, executive creative director for North America at FutureBrand in New York, an agency owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies that specializes in corporate and brand identities. ‘The cues and signs of “diet” say “dated,”’ Mr. Zibara said. ‘No one wants to be seen walking down the street with a diet beverage in hand.’”

It seems likely that in the next decade or so, diet sodas will either (once again) be marketed as separate products altogether, in a Tab sort of vein, or overtake and replace their nondiet counterparts, so that it will become difficult or impossible to order a soft drink with calories and sugar. Even a somewhat health-conscious public, burned once by saccharin, twice by cyclamates, and a third time by aspartame, does not seem to have any interest in fighting diet sodas, and the industry’s marketing directors and advertising people are working hard to make sure that diet soda continues to increase its market share. Not even sturdy old chocolate Yoo-Hoo has been spared; now you can get Yoo-Hoo Lite, with 60 calories per eight-ounce serving.

Diet-beverage marketers have almost completely forsaken the original language of health and dieting. The Web sites for Coca-Cola Zero and Diet Pepsi recently celebrated the participants of masculine “extreme” sports. The Coca-Cola Zero marketing makes no overt references to its status as a diet soda; the Diet Pepsi Web page prominently displays athletic types, presumably more interested in gaining or maintaining weight than losing it.

A half-century after Hyman Kirsch developed a drink for patients in a Brooklyn sanitarium, the world of products he spawned is ubiquitous in our national life, and its effervescent history is a very American one, a pageant of American values and American marketing. From Kirsch and his No-Cal of the 1950s to E. Neville Isdell, chief executive of Coca-Cola in the new millennium, leaders of the ever-growing industry have made a systematic effort to read, influence, and then influence again the public’s perception of diet soda as being as good as “the real thing” and, indeed, as speedily replacing it.

What’s That Funny Taste?