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Soda Pop Culture

Philip Burrowes

New products usually come and go at the Institute’s dining outlets, but a host of beverages have arrived since the year started and seem here to stay. Even aside from the new tastes (or lack thereof) they suggest some interesting trends in the soft drink industry. Of course, trends in any industry so dominated by a couple of major corporations might be little more than one coherent corporate philosophy. Nevertheless, there seems to be a push on all fronts to put a twist on the conventional soft drink, in other words, to build a different, if not better, mousetrap.

The frequent banality of this change is no more evident than in Coke and Pepsi’s suspiciously close launches of lemon-flavored products. “Diet Coke with Lemon” hit the Midwest in September, and graced Aramark outlets but a month later. Pepsi successfully tested “Pepsi Twist” last year in Minnesota and Texas, but only kicked up national production over the summer. As a result, it appeared Pepsi’s product -- which, unlike Coke’s, has both normal and diet versions -- was a mere copycat. Either way, as any visitor to the company’s Atlanta museum can attest, Coke was a fruit-flavored tonic decades before the era of Pepsi Light, let alone Wild Cherry Pepsi.

Speaking of which, Pepsi introduced a cherry-flavored variant on its Mountain Dew brand called “Code Red.” Promising a taste “as real as the streets,” the Red Dye #40-laden pop has been promoted on a very different line than its less mellow, more yellow ancestor. Instead of extreme sporters, basketball superstars Chris Webber and Tracy McGrady team up for a television spot where they go to school on some unsuspecting playground ballers, then incongruously sip some soda. Not since McDonald’s became an official sponsor of the Olympics has a product so unsuitable for sports been associated with athletics. Given Busta Rhymes’ recent allusion to the original Dew’s ram-butting commercial in his video for “Break Ya Neck,” it’s doubtful whether the Code Red actually reaches an untapped market, but who can tell what conglomerates are thinking?

Reluctant to rest on its laurels, Pepsi has begun dispensing an energy-drink form of Mountain Dew called “Amp,” suggesting that Code Red may have only been the beginning. In any case, going for $2.29 a pop at Pritchett, this “Red Bull” knock-off even sports the same size can as the preeminent “energy-drink.” Unable to claim it gives us wings, Amp instead compels us to “get plugged in.” Apparently its marketing drive is starting at universities, perhaps because the Midwest is passe. Look out, though; the can warns that this expensive combination of vitamins and herbal essences is not for children.

While Pepsi has been looking into stomping out the KMX Company, Coke acquired Mad River Traders, and promptly set out to topple Pepsi’s own Sobe brand of healthy refreshment. Their take on herbally enhanced, many-flavored soft drinks goes by the name “Natural Fusion,” either due to it’s “all-natural” claim or because the fusion has, naturally, been done before. Besides Sobe, Snapple’s “Elements” line has been all over the concept. Mad River tries to distinguish itself by keeping (putting?) pulp in the mix, and as a result comes off more like a “Nantucket Nectars” reject than a novel or enriching experience.

Best of show goes to GlacÉu’s “Vitamin Water.” Most bottled waters are inherently pretentious; their premise is they’re naturally better than common tap water. Vitamin Water still thinks it’s better -- its under-construction web site is <> -- but it at least admits you have to add something to water besides mountain dirt to make it anything special. What really helps it stand out is not the promise of actual nutrition (is Siberian ginseng better than American ginseng?), but rather the flavor descriptions on the bottle labels. Imagine all the oddity of a Sobe bottle cap, taking up the length of a whole label. Gotta catch ‘em all.

Although not a drink, Dilberitos have been another notable addition to the vegetarian options on campus. These tiny -- ”hand held” is the official euphemization -- microwavable wraps make it easy to eat 100% of the USRDA for 23 essential vitamins and minerals. More importantly, they’re backed by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, so you get to hear his soul selling out with every bite. Will his new meat alternative, “Protein Chef,” be far behind? Probably, but it’s both kosher and vegan, so what’s not to like?

No doubt some of these products seem pretty disgusting to you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get out of your Walker-frequenting rut and try some of them. When you stick to a set pattern, you miss out on all the innovations springing up around. Perhaps some Diet Coke with Lemon is just the drink to wash down the Hawaiian chicken at Jump. Or maybe, just maybe, Amp actually works, and you’ll have a new favorite all-nighter catalyst. Until, at least, MacGregor starts stocking “White Lightning Jolt”... one can always dream.