Thursday, April 20, 2006
‘Pepsi Challenge’ Gives Coke Cause for Worry
By ROGER M. GRACE
The “Pepsi Challenge”—which triggered what came to be known in the news media in the 1980s as the “Cola Wars”—began as a modest advertising campaign in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of Texas in 1975.
Pepsico, maker of Pepsi-Cola, used the very approach which Nehi employed in the late 1930s to promote Royal Crown Cola. Independently conducted blind taste tests, Pepsico boasted, revealed that its product was prefered over Coke.
A 1939 Royal Crown ad (quoted here March 16) declared: “[I]n 9 out of 10 attested taste-tests in city after city, Royal Crown has won hands down.” Pepsi’s claim was more modest. In a TV commercial, it said:
“Half the Coca-Cola drinkers tested in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area actually prefer Pepsi.”
The commercial showed consumers sampling two glasses of cola, one glass marked “M” and the other “Q.” Pepsi was in the “M” glass.
After a year of these spots being aired, and with the “Pepsi Challenge” spreading to Michigan, the Coca-Cola Company decided to fight back.
“Here’s a fascinating report,” the announcer said on a Coke commercial which was aired on Dallas-Ft. Worth stations starting in June, 1976. “Two glasses, one marked M and the other marked Q. Both glasses contain the same thing: Coca-Cola.
“We asked people to pick the one that tasted better. Most of them picked M even though the drinks were the same. You know what that proves? It proves that people will pick M more often than Q. So M has an advantage.
“Now, in recent TV commercials, Pepsi-Cola put itself up against another cola, and Pepsi-Cola called itself M.”
End of commercial.
Later in 1996, the Pepsi Challenge reached Los Angeles. A Nov. 11 ad in the Valley News invited entries in “the ‘something for everyone’ Pepsi Challenge Sweepstakes.” It announced:
“GRAND PRIZE [¶] DATSUN 280-Z! and a year’s supply (52 cases) of Pepsi or Coke! [¶] (Let your taste decide which.)”
There were 72 other prizes — “to suit your good, bad, funky or whatever taste” including a used porthole, a $40 gift certicate at Frederick’s of Hollywood, a pub dartboard, and a stalk of plastic bananas.
Pleased with results in test markets, Pepsico decided in 1977 to use the “Pepsi Challenge” in a nationwide campaign. It reached Chicago, for example, in September of that year.
A November, 1977 ad which Pepsi placed in newspapers read:
“Maybe you’ve seen ‘The Pepsi Challenge’ on TV.
“It’s a simple, straightforward taste test where people taste Coca-Cola® and Pepsi without knowing which is which. Then we ask them which one they prefer.
“Nationwide, more people prefer Pepsi over Coca-Cola.”
President Jimmy Carter became a partisan in the cola wars. Nationally syndicated columnist Jack Anderson disclosed Sept. 20, 1979 that the Coca-Cola Company, which is headquarted in Atlanta, Ga., had provided major political support to Carter—and had been receiving big political favors, and noted:
“After he moved into the White House, the new president summarily banished Pepsi Cola and installed Coca-Cola as the executive thirst quencher.”
Anderson had reported on May 7, 1977 that President Richard Nixon had been a partisan of Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi CEO Donald Kendall, he noted, “helped to set up Richard Nixon in the law business in New York City in the 1960s.”
The 1977 advertising campaign resulted in a spectacular coup. Pepsi’s grocery store sales that year exceeded those of Coke.
An April 4, 1982 article in the Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald Journal reflected:
“Although Coke remains No. 1 nationally in fountain and vending sales, things could be better. Coke hasn’t toppled Pepsi’s new takehome sales lead despite changes in leadership and advertising slogans, and even a corporate memo that called 1980 ‘the critical year’ to ‘stop Pepsi’s momentum.’
“After years of ignoring The Challenge, Coca-Cola in 1981 dispatched comedian Bill Cosby to the front. Mixing salesmanship with Socrates, Cosby asked in commercials why a certain cola compares itself to Coke. ‘Maybe that’s why they call Coke the real thing,’ he concluded.”
In 1984, Pepsico paid $7 million to Michael Jackson and his kin to appear in two commercials. The Coca-Cola Company countered with TV spots featuring Julio Iglesias, who received $10 million.
The intensity of the fray hit its peak in 1985. That’s the subject of next week’s column.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company
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