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Not the real thing anymore

Coke recently announced it was changing its flavor and a lot of people are mad.

The new Coke is sweeter, more like Pepsi, which is a little ironic. Only a few months ago Bill Cosby was on commercials telling us he liked Coke because it was less sweet than Pepsi. Cosby has probably changed his mind and decided he likes the new Coke more than anything, if only because it's in his contract.

The Coke change comes amid a flurry of new soft drinks. In the past few years grocery store shelves have been assaulted with a plethora of variations on old stand-bys. The Coke change is just one of these recent changes. Despite the cries of protest from old Coke lovers, more changes could be on the way.

7Up started it all. 7Up and the Food and Drug Administration.

Just about two years ago, 7Up, the only major soft-drink company with declining sales, launched a new advertising campaign extolling its lack of caffeine. "Crisp and clean and no caffeine," the ads proclaimed. A health-conscious country took notice. There was widespread interest in caffeine-free drinks and the other beverage companies brought out their own products.

And so it was that Pepsi begat Pepsi Free, Dr. Pepper invented Pepper Free, Coke gave rise to Caffeine Free Coke, and so on. The new crop of caffeine-less drinks gave consumers more of a choice, and most were happy with that choice. It was a little hard keeping track of all the varieties, but everybody started to settle down and get comfortable with the new order. Apart from the introduction of Diet Coke (a drink that strangely resembled Tab), it looked as if the soft-drink situation would stabilize.

But then the Food and Drug Administration upset everything by deciding it was okay for Americans to consume aspartame (a.k.a. Nutrasweet) -- that clever little dipepetide that makes your tastebuds think they're encountering sugar. Diet Coke soon featured aspartame and the new flavoring was a big hit. Aspartame didn't taste exactly like sugar, but it was so much better than saccharin that many diet soda devotees were soon wondering how they could have ever put up with the old stuff. All the big diet drinks converted to aspartame -- first in a mixture with saccharin -- and then by itself.

But while the introduction of caffeine-free drinks had no bad points, the switch from saccharin to aspartame did. The new stuff may taste a lot better, but in making the switch, the beverage companies cut the range of taste choices available to consumers. Believe it or not, some people actually liked saccharin. The old Diet Coke was bitter, but the new Diet Coke is much like regular Coke. There isn't as much of a choice.

Which raises the question as to what "regular Coke" is. Coca-Cola can dictate whatever formula for Coke it wants, of course, but the recent taste change was bound to make people angry for two reasons: consumers are used to the old Coke and resent change, and the new Coke is sweeter, is more like Pepsi, so consumers again have their choices diminished.

Cola is the quintessential American beverage and Coke is the biggest of the colas. Changing the distinctive Coke taste is almost heresy. It's as if a fundamental pillar of our national culture and heritage has been altered.

But a company which has had as many marketing successes as the Coca-Cola Company must know what they are doing. Maybe they were responding to the apparent popularity of sweetness as shown by the success of aspartame. Maybe they saw that Pepsi was gaining popularity faster than Coke was. For whatever reason, the Coke executives decided that a taste change was in order and that they had to institute one to keep Coke number one.

People will probably come to accept the new Coke and forgive Coca-Cola. High-profile beverage companies are lucky about things like this. PepsiCo cozied up to the Russians, hired former Nixon aides, and joined the Arab boycott of Israel and is still considered a down-home all-American company, if only because of Michael Jackson endorsements and Steven Spielberg-like TV commercials.

Yes, Coke will be around for a long time. Flavor change or not, Coke will still be Coke in the public mind ten years from now.

Whether it's the pause that refreshes or the thing you have with a smile, Coke will retain its cokeness, despite taste variations. Marketing and advertising will keep it alive and in the long run people will accept it. The new Coke may not be the real thing, but, as we all know, Coke is it.