What does a can of Coke tell you about America?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 23, 2004

By: Jonathan McElvy/Publisher and President

Somewhere along the way, we’ve managed to take a good thing and make it really bad. We’re not talking about turning Coca-Cola into New Coke, either.

Remember when Coca-Cola stood for everything that was good and right with the world? Remember when a group of low-rung actors was given the chance to make a few bucks if they’d all stand together in the shape of a Christmas tree?

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They wanted to teach the world to sing… (don’t be shy)… in perfect harmony.

As a child – maybe Bear Bryant had something to do with this – there wasn’t anything better than an ice-cold Coca-Cola. Put some peanuts in it. Pour a can into a quart of vanilla ice cream. Shucks, you could have marinated boot leather in the stuff.

Though dentists and stomach doctors would differ, Coca-Cola was the perfect amenity for every situation in life. A kid could have fallen from his bike, slid halfway down the driveway on his knuckles and knees, and if mom handed him a Coca-Cola? Hey, life’s good.

Then it happened. April 23, 1985. The darkest day in dark-soda history.

Losing market-share points to Pepsi forced the brain-trust at Coca-Cola to “reformulate” its biting – but beautiful – soft drink. They made it sweeter. They changed the label. They even shortened the name. If Pepsi Cola was just Pepsi, then Coca-Cola should be just Coke.

It took market analysts and corporate free-thinkers almost two years to devise a product they thought would recapture the Coke drinkers. In taste tests (remember those?), their sweetened product “scored” better than Pepsi. In focus groups, Coke “addicts” said they would give the new product a try. (In hindsight, we’re forced to wonder if they sampled the right brand of addicts.)

But on April 23, 1985, when New Coke hit the shelves, America all but revolted. In the July 22, 1985, edition of Time magazine, one person summed up the nation’s thoughts quite well: “At first I was numb. Then I was shocked. Then I started to yell and scream and run up and down.”

In the same article, another person hit even closer to home: “There are only two things in my life: God and Coca-Cola. Now you have taken one of those things away from me.”

As we all know, Coca-Cola recognized its ill-devised blunder in rapid time. By July 25, 1985, Coca-Cola Classic (which you’ll still find on the label), made its way back to store shelves and drink machines all over this great land. New Coke found its way into text books and demeaning columns.

So what does the morbid history of New Coke have to do with anything today?

On Friday, we marked what merchants and mothers have dubbed the beginning of the holiday season. As soon as the cranberry sauce was tucked in the Tupperware, holiday season shoppers put the kids in bed and prepared for the 5 a.m. trip to the super store.

Over the past decade, a lot has changed about our holiday season in America. For that matter, a lot has changed about the way we writers describe Christmas – not the “holiday season,” for goodness sakes.

Whether it’s a lawsuit over the nativity scene on public property or a school play that doesn’t allow Christmas carols, we’ve taken what used to be a good thing and made it an insipid celebration of nothing.

It’s not so much that agnostics suddenly decided to devour the spirit of Christ’s birthday. They were too smart for that. Instead, they have methodically marched around the United States and “reformulated” every tangible piece of this nation’s moral establishment.

Don’t like the Pledge of Allegiance and its reference to a nation under God? Find a sympathetic court and file a motion.

Think the dollar bill is an incognito evangelistic leaflet? Begin the march to Fort Knox.

Can’t stand the thought of a prayer soothing the ears of 1,000 restless high-school graduates? Sue the system.

Here’s the worst part: The system is losing.

The system that allowed prayers at football game has been held scoreless and retreated to the locker room.

The system that wrote the Pledge of Allegiance has been told to shut up, and they have.

The system that designed our currency will become bankrupt in a number of years.

And the system that once celebrated Christmas – not the “holiday season” – has been forced to replace the Baby in a manger with a waterbed full of New Coke.

In the case of the soft-drink, at least, America realized what it lost when the “sweeter” version replaced the formula upon which Coca-Cola built its glory.

Jonathan McElvy is publisher of The Times and is on vacation. This column was originally published Nov. 29, 2003.