The Cola Wars: The Creation of the Soda Giants

The Pepsi Challenge: The Ultimate Taste Test

                     In 1975, Pepsi was facing a crisis.  Their stock prices were dropping fast and many were worried they would lose the Cola Wars before they truly began.  Pepsi executives in Dallas, Texas, figured out a way to save the company.  The “Pepsi Challenge” was invented in Dallas in an attempt to see if the South truly loved Coca-Cola for its taste, or if it was out of loyalty and good marketing.  Researchers gathered dozens of test subjects who claimed to be Coca-Cola drinkers.  The subjects were then asked to drink two sodas, labeled “Q” and “M.”  When asked which the better soda was, a majority of the subjects chose soda “M.”  Imagine their surprise when this turned out to be Pepsi.  Even the Pepsi researchers seemed to originally be surprised by the results, as the South had always belonged to Coca-Cola.  Immediately, these results were turned into what is possibly the most effective advertising campaign of the Cola Wars.
            Pepsi went above and beyond with the “Pepsi Challenge” advertising campaigns.  The largest portion of the advertising was television ads, as was normal since the 1950s.  These ads basically replicated the original “Pepsi Challenge” with different subjects from different areas every time to show that people around the country found Pepsi better than Coke.  Magazine and radio advertisements were created by Pepsi at high rates once again to advertise the results of the “Pepsi Challenge.”  Pepsi also took began touring the United States in trucks, similar to Oscar Meyer’s weinermobile, that allowed people to take the “Pepsi Challenge” for themselves.  At these touring trucks, people were also able to receive buttons, shirts, and other novelties proclaiming that they had taken the “Pepsi Challenge.”  Pepsi even produced buttons saying “I picked Coke in the Pepsi Challenge.”  The advertising was massive for this campaign, but it was worth it.  Pepsi’s shares in the market were once again rising, putting Coca-Cola on the defensive.
            Coca-Cola immediately claimed that Pepsi had flawed research and that the results were incorrect.  One of the first rebuttals from Coke was that people preffered the letter M and it had nothing to do with the Cola inside.  Pepsi had their research agency immediately change their letters in the testing to “L” and “S.”  Subjects were still selecting the cup with Pepsi in it.  Coca-Cola once again with a letter preference response, and when that didn’t work began a new advertising campaign.  The first television campaign from Coca-Cola in direct response to the “Pepsi Challenge” claimed that the Cola product Fresca was preferred by drinkers over Pepsi.  This advertisement campaign by Coke still did not stall the momentum from Pepsi.  Coca-Cola then brought in Bill Cosby, whose advertisements may have stalled Pepsi at least enough to allow Coca-Cola to come up with a new solution.  Cosby asked his audiences, “Howcum, that in the Pepsi Challenge you never see anybody choosing Coke?”  Whether due to advertisements like Bill Cosby’s or due to having just run its course naturally, the “Pepsi Challenge” ended in 1983.
            The “Pepsi Challenge” may have ended less than a decade from when it began, but the campaign easily became one of the most successful in advertising history.  Advertising for everything from food to cleaning products have had their own version of the “Pepsi Challenge” in the years since.  Marketing companies understood the success Pepsi had with this campaign, and used the techniques to make their own products more successful.  This also had an impact on how people bought products.  Ads such as the “Pepsi Challenge” convinced people that one product was better without ever needing to see the actual proof.  Now, companies understand that consumers will be more willing to buy their products if the company can claim they are better than their competitors.  The “Pepsi Challenge” has had a lasting impact on American consumerism and marketing campaigns.  However, that is not the only reason the challenge was important to food history.  Coca-Cola’s ultimate response to the “Pepsi Challenge” was to re-create their soda and give it a different name: New Coke.

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  1. Pepsi Challenge 1981
  2. Pepsi Challenge 1983 Commercial
  3. Pepsi Challenge Shirt
  4. Pepsi Challenge Buttons