Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail

iStock
iStock

In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

When Pokémon Sent Hundreds of Viewers to the Hospital

Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images

By the time the 38th episode of the animated children’s series Pokémon, or Pocket Monsters, aired in Japan, it was a bona fide sensation, drawing roughly 4 million viewers weekly. One survey estimated that 55 percent of schoolchildren in Tokyo's Kawasaki school district followed the series. The show—which began airing April 1, 1997, and focused on the adventures of Ash and affable monsters like Pikachu in their attempt to collect one creature from each species to train for combat—was also a comic, a Nintendo video game, a trading card series, and more. The devoted fandom would soon spread to the United States.

But then something peculiar happened—so peculiar that it become the subject of medical journal research. The Pokémon episode that aired at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 16, 1997 depicted a cataclysmic explosion between thunderbolts thrown by Pikachu and a “vaccine bomb.” Red and blue flashing lights began to pulse onscreen. Though the sequence lasted only a few seconds, hundreds of children were stricken by an immediate and visceral response that ranged from headaches and dizziness to full-blown seizures. Japanese hospitals found themselves treating viewers for epileptic symptoms.

This wave of deleterious effects became international news. Never before had a television program had such a direct and immediate health consequence on its audience. Some people initially dismissed the whole thing as a hoax or possibly some kind of mass hysteria, but the physical reactions were genuine. What had made this episode of Pokémon so dangerous—even among those viewers not diagnosed with epilepsy? And could it happen again?

 

The potential for a television program to trigger seizures is rooted in how it displays light. Light displayed at frequencies between 10 and 30 hertz, or the number of cycles per second, is known to induce symptoms for a percentage of the population susceptible to them. The color red is also stimulating. When light is shifting from color to black and back again, nerve cells in the brain can fire electrical impulses rapidly, leading to convulsions. This is often referred to as photosensitive epilepsy, where certain visual stimuli can cause a seizure.

As a result, there have been a handful of programs that have prompted medical concern for viewers. In 1993, the UK had three reported seizures as a result of a commercial for pot noodles that used flickering light, prompting the advertiser to pull it from the air. A 2012 animation for the Olympics also triggered adverse effects for a reported 18 viewers. People don’t necessarily need to have epilepsy in order to be affected; they might have an undiagnosed condition, remaining symptom-free until viewing such footage. Others might react even in the absence of epilepsy, suffering headaches or other symptoms as a result of being overly sensitive to flickering light.

Mew and Mewtwo are pictured in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

In Japanese animation, the strobe effect was obviously not intended to cause distress. Animators considered it a technique, which they dubbed paka paka, and which was intended to communicate to the viewer a sequence of high intensity. In “Denno Shenshi Porigon” (“Electric Soldier Porygon”), the Pokémon episode that became infamous, Pikachu’s attempt to free a monster named Porygon from a digital prison results in his being attacked by computer virus missiles. Throwing his thunderbolt attack, he intercepts the missiles and creates a paka paka explosion augmented by another technique known as flash, which accentuates bright and flashing lights. The frames in the sequence were alternating at 12 hertz—well within the window to cause problems.

The scene, which occurred roughly 21 minutes into the episode, is what prompted individuals with photosensitive epilepsy to react. Statistically, it made sense. It’s believed that one in every 4000 people are vulnerable to the condition. With 4 million people watching, 1000 of them could conceivably have been struck with symptoms. A reported 618 people were hospitalized for treatment. Some even wound up in intensive care with breathing problems.

That such a sizable number were in need of attention did not go unnoticed, particularly since it was the result of a children’s show. The story was covered by the late-evening newscasts in Japan, some of which inexplicably decided to air footage of the episode, which provoked more photosensitive reactions. By Wednesday morning, the Pokémon incident was the talk of Japanese schoolyards, with kids being asked if they had been struck down by the cartoon.

 

It took science some time to figure out why this sequence had been so particularly consequential, even among those who weren’t epileptic. As it turned out, the typical living environment in some areas of Japan was partly to blame. In small living rooms often dominated by large television screens, kids were confronted with a towering and flickering image. Some even sat close to the screens, compounding the potentially negative effects of the sequence. Children are also more susceptible to epileptic seizures, and kids were Pokémon's target audience. The length of the sequence, which was roughly six seconds, and its heavy emphasis on the color red may have also played a part.

Hospitals who were sent questionnaires by researchers reported that many of the children treated were not diagnosed with epilepsy, though the incident seemed to precede a diagnosis. One letter to the editor published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 stated that of 91 patients evaluated for Pokémon-induced symptoms, 25 had another convulsion within five years. Of 13 patients who were treated and had no history of epilepsy, 10 wound up being diagnosed eventually.

Pikachu (L) and Ash (R) appear in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

Animators were flummoxed. The paka paka and flash sequences had been used before, though likely not in a program approaching the viewership of Pokémon. Police launched an investigation to make sure Television Tokyo, the broadcast network, was not somehow negligent in airing the program. They weren’t, though the consequence would be the same either way: No one would ever take the risk of airing “Denno Shenshi Porigon” again.

 

The episode was pulled from the series and was never rebroadcast, save for the news clips. The show itself was taken off the air in Japan entirely, not returning until April 1998 and carrying cautionary warnings. (When Pokémon was imported to America in 1999, the episode was predictably left out.) New broadcast standards in Japan were implemented that mandated the color red could not flash more than three times per second, with no more than five flashes per second of any color, and no flash more than two seconds in length.

That wasn’t quite the end of seizure concerns in popular culture. In 2018, some theaters put up signs cautioning viewers that flashing lights in The Incredibles 2 could be a problem for those with photosensitive epilepsy. Disney later reedited the film in the UK so it complied with the Harding Box test, which sets standards on flash and flicker rates for light and can reduce—though never eliminate—the potential for problems. The company is also issuing a warning for the upcoming December 20 release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, stating the film has “several sequences” utilizing flashing lights.

Owing to the relative rarity of these events, it’s likely productions will continue to use flashing images, though producers of Pokémon would probably prefer to forget the 1997 incident ever happened. The episode has never again been cited and the character of Porygon disappeared, save for one fleeting mention in Japan when Hulu kept a preview for the episode at the conclusion of the previous installment. While it doesn’t contain any of the incendiary sequence, it might be the only surviving footage of the day television really was bad for kids.

When Disco Demolition Night Nearly Demolished Chicago's Comiskey Park

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec was warming up on the mound when he noticed the rush of people on the field. Preparing for a second game in a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, the White Sox had lost the first by a score of 4-1. The crowd had been rowdy and insolent throughout, but this was something else.

As Kravec stood on the mound, thousands of attendees descended from the bleachers and slid down poles marking foul ball territory. They dug up dirt in the field and began running off with bases. A few tried removing home plate. Kravec soon joined his teammates in the dugout, where both the White Sox and the Tigers were staring in disbelief at the mayhem.

The source of their unrest was happening in center field. It was a bonfire made up of thousands of records, mostly disco, that the team had invited fans to bring with them for a reduced admission price. Management had expected perhaps 35,000 people. Nearly 50,000 showed up. On July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition Night would go down as one of the most infamous evenings in the history of Major League Baseball. It was not only the destruction that stirred controversy, but the concern that the demonstration had a far more disturbing subtext.

 

In the mid- to late-1970s, attendance at many major league baseball stadiums was down. Teams around the country tried a variety of stunts to stir interest, including Cleveland’s notorious 10-cent beer night in 1974 that sparked a mountain of misbehavior. The White Sox were in particularly dire need of something to reinvigorate their franchise. In 1979, an average of just 10,000 to 16,000 people were coming to their games, though Comiskey Park could seat 45,000.

Team owner Bill Veeck tried to turn the games into a spectacle. There was a scoreboard that could set off pyrotechnics and other attention-grabbing additions, but nothing seemed to stick. The action on field was equally tepid. Midway through the season, the Sox held a disappointing 35-45 record.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Veeck’s son, Mike Veeck, was assistant business manager for the team. Like many Chicago residents, he had heard local radio shock jock Steve Dahl on WLUP, an FM rock station serving the area. Dahl was prone to disparaging the then-popular genre of disco on air, playing records and then keying up an explosion sound effect. Dahl had lost his previous job on WDAI after it went all-disco, giving him an origin story of sorts for his contempt.

Dahl, of course, wasn’t entirely alone in his disco dismissal. A trendy and dance-friendly format, disco had been dominating airwaves and Billboard charts, with Donna Summer and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on heavy rotation and acts ranging from KISS to the Rolling Stones recording disco singles. Even 1977’s Star Wars scored a hit with a disco tie-in album. In the first half of 1979, 13 of the top 16 tracks were disco. Rock enthusiasts like Dahl thought the genre was inferior to their preferences and decried its widespread success.

Though Veeck had no particular opinion about disco, he saw an opportunity to partner with Dahl for a stunt. At Comiskey Park, attendees could get in for just 98 cents if they brought in one disco record for what was dubbed Disco Demolition Night. Once employees collected the records, Dahl would appear between the doubleheader with the Tigers and proceed to queue up an explosion.

Dahl agreed and promoted the appearance heavily on the air. The Veecks contacted Chicago police and asked for increased security as they expected up to triple their usual attendance as a result of the promotion—upwards of 35,000 people. With interest in the Sox low all season, it’s not clear that authorities took the request seriously.

They should have. Come July 12, people began lining up for the evening doubleheader as early as 4 p.m. A cursory glance at the crowd revealed that many of them were not baseball fans. There were a large number of teenagers as well as several attendees wearing concert T-shirts, a hint that the promotion had attracted people looking for a spectacle rather than a sporting event. Inside, many clung to their records instead of tossing them in the bins near the gates. As seats began filling up inside, thousands of people were armed with vinyl records. The scene had the makings of an active demonstration, not a passive entertainment.

As the White Sox and Tigers played their first game, spectators began tossing drinks and records onto the field. Chants of “disco sucks” filled the stadium. Firecrackers snapped in the air. When the game wrapped, Dahl emerged on the field in military fatigues, while a pile of disco records sat in center field. Inciting the crowd more, Dahl grabbed a microphone and let loose anti-disco invective before giving the signal to immolate the records. A fuse was lit and soon the pile was on fire.

Rather than pacify the crowd, the sight of the blaze seemed to embolden them. Kravec and the other players watched as people swarmed the field, sliding down poles and risking injury by jumping from the deck to the grass. Records were hurled, sticking into the ground. People tried to climb inside the skybox occupied by the wife and children of team manager Don Kessinger. Cherry bombs were ignited and exploded. The air took on a smoky atmosphere of flying projectiles, with an estimated 7000 people—almost the typical crowd of a regular season game—trampling the diamond.

Some players armed themselves with bats, their nearest available weapon. Announcer Harry Caray took to the public address system to call for order, which went ignored.

The crowd, however raucous, was largely nonviolent and no fights were reported. When police finally arrived 30 minutes later to restore order, 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. A vendor with a broken hip was the worst injury recorded. The main damage was to the field itself, which had been cratered by the explosion.

With no other alternative, the Sox were forced to forfeit the game, though the team wanted to call it a rain delay. The only rain had been from the beer bottles.

 

The official attendance was reported as 47,795, though Mike Veeck believed the crowd was as large as 60,000. Many had climbed over gates and overwhelmed ushers, crashing the stadium and getting in without paying admission. Disco Demolition Night had quickly turned from a purportedly clever marketing idea to a nightmare. Dahl would later admit to being more than a little scared by the whole ordeal.

The forfeit was the first by a major league team in five years. Soon, Bill Veeck would be out as president, selling the team in 1981; Mike Veeck didn’t get another job in baseball for 10 years—both situations reportedly due in large part to the near-riot that had transpired. But that would not be the only fallout from the stunt.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

As ushers admitted fans into the stadium, they noticed a number of the records being turned in were by black artists—not just disco, but soul, R&B, and other genres. Steve Wonder and Marvin Gaye were among the performers destined for the bonfire. Because disco was popular among minority groups including Latinos and the gay community, observers believed Dahl had stirred up something more sinister than a simple distaste for disco music.

“People started running up on me, yelling ‘Disco sucks!’ in my face, getting in my face, confronting me as a person that ‘represents’ disco, and there were thousands of people running around in this stadium buck wild,” Vince Lawrence, an usher at the stadium that night, told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2019. “I started going, ‘Wait a minute, why am I disco?’” Lawrence, who is black, was actually wearing a shirt endorsing Dahl’s radio station.

Later, Lawrence said he was surprised most of the media coverage had been about the damage done to the baseball field, not the undercurrent of the protest. “It was evident that it was seen as OK, because the next day it was in the paper everywhere, all over the news, but the biggest complaint about the issue was not, ‘Hey, why the heck is it OK to just actively destroy somebody’s culture?’ That wasn’t the story. The story was like, ‘Hey, the lawn on this baseball field got f***ed up.'"

In interviews, Dahl refuted any claims he had intended to stir up any racial animosity. He simply hated disco and decided to engage in the kind of promotional stunt common among disc jockeys at the time. But the controversy returned in summer 2019, when the White Sox offered a T-shirt “commemorating” the demolition stunt. The move was criticized for being in poor taste.

As a tool to diminish disco, Dahl and Veeck’s themed evening was somewhat successful. Radio stations took to playing less of it and record labels began to shy away from the genre, forcing it underground. Of course, it’s likely disco would have been a cultural fad regardless. But what is superficially an outrageous story about a sporting stunt gone awry has also been looked at as a rejection of what disco represented: a diversity in tastes and spirit. It's for that reason Disco Demolition Night remains an infamous black eye in baseball history.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER