Fresca is my favorite soda. I love Fresca, and drink a can every day, more or less. I never get tired of Fresca. When the supply gets low my wife stocks up on more Fresca, lining up 12-packs so I never run out. Fresca has no calories, yet tastes wonderful, grapefruity, yet something more complex ("Surprisingly complex," according to the tag line).
Squint your eyes and it tastes like a gin and tonic, almost—its parent company, Coca Cola, doesn't push that aspect though.
I've been eagerly drinking Fresca for almost eight years, a date I know with precision because I can trace when I had my first sip of Fresca, at least the one that set off my current fling with the brand.
I accepted a small plastic cup of the stuff.
If I were telling my story in front of a Salvation Army band on a streetcorner, it would be how that one taste opened up the gates of hell, the downward slide into Fresca addiction, as my life collapsed into a Fresca-fueled disaster after another.
But Fresca has no side effects, as far as I can tell. It doesn't have calories. It doesn't leave an aftertaste. It's just good and refreshing, and if all those artificial ingredients cause something bad, well, given how much of it I drink, it would have happened already. My jaw hasn't fallen off yet.
I say this to give some long overdue credit to a generally ignored area of marketing: the free sample. While the Mad Men advertising creative types get all the credit for their stupid cartoon characters and annoying jingles, which are celebrated forever as cultural touchstones, often there is no better way to get the message about a product across to consumers than by pressing that product into the hands of the would-be customer. Fresca was introduced in 1966, and I don't know how many Fresca ads and Fresca commercials I shrugged off and ignored before that fateful day in Canada. You can turn the page in a magazine, look away from a screen. Harder when somebody hands you something. Drinking the stuff worked.
Some companies have samples built into their business plan. Costco has an army of employees ladling out the samples on weekends. And as much as the boys used to clamor to go, the experience was only in the freebie gobbling. I'm sure the theory was to draw customers to the products, but for us, it merely drew us to the store. Nobody ever wanted to buy packages of coconut shrimp. Just the idea was sort of nauseating. One was plenty.
On Monday, the Larabar teams were back. On the North side of Madison, a bald young man pressed three into my hand. "Thanks!" I said brightly. "My son loves this stuff." Then across the street there was a lone woman, also handing them out. I tucked the trio into my briefcase and vectored over for more. "Thanks," I said, again. "My son loves this stuff." That must have touched a maternal nerve. "Here," she said, pushing another handful at me. "Take more."
Down into Union Station, I rendezvoused with my boy—well, went over to where I saw he was sitting. "Rendezvous" implies he gave a damn whether I showed up or not. He was reading The Economist. I sat silently down beside him.
"Did you get any Larabars?" he asked, his way of hello.
"A fistful," I said. "About 20."
Actually, it was 10.
"Why so many?" he asked.
"I told them you liked them," I said. "Would you like one?"
"I already ate three," he replied "This is a particularly good one."
"Cashew cookie," I said, reading the label. One hundred calories for the little sample, God knows what the full bar would be. I shrugged and ate it. Of course, you can't expect something called "Cashew Cookie" to be exactly dietetic, can you?
Ross is 18. He might be eating Larabars for the next fifty years, assuming they still make them—General Mills owns the brand, started a decade ago in Colorado, surprise, surprise, by a woman named Lara, Lara Merrikan (I hope to God, if she has a daughter, she names her "Anna). To whoever is handling the marketing budget for the Chicago area: that sampling budget is money well spent, at least from our perspective. I certainly like them free. Whether I'll learn to like them bought and paid for, well, we'll see.
* In the post, originally, it was at the base of CN Tower in Toronto; but my wife assures me this memory is mistaken and it was Niagara Falls. Given that's she right about most everything, she no doubt is right about this, too.