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Coke's change was immediately greeted by angry protest. For three straight months, Coca-Cola headquarters received some 1,500 phone calls daily, as well as a barrage of angry letters. Wrote one correspondent: "Changing Coke is like God making the grass purple or putting toes on our ears or teeth on our knees." Among the most common complaints: new Coke was dull and watery and tasted distressingly like Pepsi.
As a chastened Keough admitted last week, "The passion for original Coke was something that just flat caught us by surprise. The simple fact is that all of the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the depth and emotional attachment to the original Coca-Cola felt by so many people."
Keough denied a widely held belief that the company had brought out new Coke as part of a deliberate, Machiavellian plot to create support for the older product. Said he: "Some critics will say Coca-Cola has made a marketing mistake. Some cynics say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is, we're not that dumb, and we're not that smart."
Why, at a time when the world is trying to cope with international terrorism, superpower tensions and starvation in Africa, has so much furor erupted over what is, after all, merely a change in a soft-drink formula?
In many ways, the Great Coke Debate revealed something about the current state of the American psyche. In a world of ceaseless change, people cling desperately to the known and the given. The old Latin Mass is gone, the phone company has been broken up, Walter Cronkite is no longer on the evening news. Throughout those changes, Coke was always there, a misty memory from childhood, a rock of ages. "Certain things in our psychological environment have to stay constant because we're in such a changing world," says Dr. Bert Pepper (no relation to the soft drink), a New York City psychiatrist. "Each of us has our favorite object of constancy. Many Americans have picked Coke." Adds Pepper: "People felt outraged and ripped off because there was an implicit and explicit contract between the Coke drinker and the company. There was unilateral abrogation of that contract when the company changed the formula."
It is, of course, possible that Coke can turn its near disaster into a marketing coup. The company now has two Cokes to compete with Pepsi-Cola, as an industry watcher pointed out--one that tastes like Coke and one that tastes like Pepsi. And since the soft-drink maker will still be selling new Coke, none of the millions of dollars spent to launch that product has been wasted. If anything, the furor created by the flavor change has made Coke more of a household word than ever.
Television viewers were served news of Coke's announcement morning, noon and night. ABC interrupted its soap opera General Hospital on Wednesday afternoon to break the news. In the kind of saturation coverage normally reserved for disasters or diplomatic crises, the decision to bring back old Coke was prominently reported on every evening network news broadcast. ABC featured the switch on its Night Line and 20/20 shows.