Netflix hit Stranger Things is arguably the current master of nostalgia marketing. You can buy officially licensed striped tube-socks, ringer tees, and the Blu-Ray releases were even packaged to resemble beat-up VHS tapes. The new poster for season three, released this week, oozed the 80s. The neon mall logo! The colors! Scrunchies! The new season of the show, which will launch July 4 on the streaming network, takes place in the summer of 1985, so it only makes sense that the show would touch on one of the biggest scandals that happened that year.
Let’s go back to April, 1985. Charity hit “We Are the World” was the number one song in the country, Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye had just come out in theaters, and it was perfectly acceptable to wear neon Lycra on a daily basis. And the Coca-Cola Company was facing a problem: competition from rival Pepsi and demand for low-calorie products like Diet Coke had caused the sales of Coke’s flagship soda to sag. So they did the unthinkable—they changed the beloved cola’s formula.
New Coke officially hit shelves on April 23, and a lot of fans didn’t exactly react well to the meddling of their favorite carbonated drink. (After all, down here in the South, every soft drink is a “coke.”) By June, the company was receiving 1,500 grumpy calls a day to its 1-800-GET-COKE hotline and Coke diehards sent angry letters to the company, some of which Coke has since released—one letter called it “a cheap imitation of Pepsi,” another described it as “dull and flat.” One sent back an ad with a picture of a New Coke can, the word “SUCKS” written over it in black Sharpie. “Keep your coupon. It’s not worth the paper it is written on.”
Pepsi, which saw a sales bump from the fiasco, took advantage of the situation with commercials declaring the company as “the choice of a new generation.” A 57-year-old Seattle resident started a protest group, Old Cola Drinkers of America. Some started stockpiling old cans of Coke and reselling them at a premium—one can only imagine what eBay would have been like. So finally, 79 days after the rollout on July 11, Coke announced the return of Coca-Cola Classic, a tagline that would remain on the packaging until 2009. New Coke stuck around for a bit, reintroduced in the early 1990s as Coke II, but was officially discontinued in 2002, left to be remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest marketing blunders. The sales increase Coke received once Classic returned to the shelves caused some to suspect the whole thing was a ploy. Then Coca-Cola President Don Keough denied that theory, saying, “The truth is we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.”
Despite the fact that “New Coke” is a phrase synonymous with failure, 34 years later, the Atlanta-based soda giant has teamed up with Atlanta-filmed Stranger Things to bring the beverage back—temporarily. These limited edition cans of New Coke look nearly identical to the ones sold in 1985, and the recipe is the same one that launched so many angry phone calls and letters. But you won’t see them on grocery shelves—the company is selling the cans online only as part of a $20 Stranger Things promo pack—2 New Coke cans, and a glass bottle each of regular Coke and Coke Zero Sugar, both with Stranger Things branding. The company will also give New Coke cans away at special events—here in Atlanta, the first 1,000 to line up and buy a ticket at World of Coke tomorrow (June 6) can snag one for free. And of course, there are T-shirts.
So how does New Coke taste to someone who wasn’t even alive in 1985? I decided to find out. The verdict: eh. It’s not awful by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not exactly good. It tastes less sweet, less flavorful, maybe a little less fizzy. It doesn’t have the same spark original Coke has, nor its cousin Coke Zero, which I favor. It tastes like Coke without the imagination, or as my millennial boyfriend described it, “like that can of generic cola that came with pizza Lunchables when we were kids.” I can see why fans rallied for their original formula back. New Coke is a perfectly drinkable soda, but it’s not Coke.