Monday, October 22, 2018

Tab addiction grips nation

     Tab, the diet soft drink made by Coca Cola, is having a cultural moment. Another cultural moment, rising like a carbonated bubble to the foaming surface of American life. According to the New York Times, its die-hard fans are in a "panic" over the prospect of shortages, whether real or imagined. I was alerted to this crisis thanks to that carnival of the trivial, Facebook, by an NU classmate who sent me a link to the story, and reminded me of a parody ad I had wrote for our college humor magazine, "Rubber Teeth."
     It's flattering to have something you did remembered after ... gee ... 38 years, and I promised I would dig it up. Though now, I can't imagine what prompted me to write it; living in a co-ed dorm, the Northwestern Apartments on Orrington Avenue, I suppose. The beautiful, good-humored model, Laurel Campbell, was my next door neighbor on the second floor, and I vaguely recall posing her in some remote dorm basement. I remember being inordinately proud that we found a machine whose little light is on for the Tab button, showing they are out. I also seem to remember concerns being raised by my colleagues at the magazine—Rubber Teeth, for "biting satire that doesn't hurt," the brainchild of my pal, Robert Leighton—about lawsuits from an offended Coca Cola, the kind of grandiosity that launches magazines in the first place. "Let 'em sue us," I said, reflecting complete ignorance both of the agonies of litigation and the protection offered by parody.
     The ad's rudimentary production values I'll generously hope can be ascribed to trying to imitate those grim fear-inducing Ad Council warnings about drunk driving and child abuse and such, popular at the time. Though they more likely were mere amateurism. I was 20, which I hope excuses me from any stench of sexism that lingers around the copy. The year was 1980.
    None of which would be worth sharing, if reading the Times piece didn't raise a question that it didn't bother to answer: Tab and Diet Coke: what's the difference, if any? "The Straight Dope" addressed the question in 1983, concluding that "For practical purposes the difference between Tab and Diet Coke is that they come in different-colored cans." The Tab can being pink, speaking of sexism, the idea being, I guess, to make the product a siren call to dieting girls, who love pink. Even more noteworthy, the Coca Cola company seems to think that it should be spelled "TaB," as evidenced by this bit of corporate puffery celebrating the beverage's 50th anniversary in 2013. Not happening.



  1. First of all that ad is brilliant. Second no, just no, on that Straight Dope answer. Here's a much much better one from ( unsurprisingly) a woman on Quoara: "I remember a time when Tab was pretty much the only thing going, diet-soda-wise, and man, was it awful. Mostly because of the saccharin, which had this tinny taste which was about as predominant as the sweetness.

    There were other sugar-free sodas (I remember Diet-Rite) on the market, but they were hard to find. Tab, on the other hand, was heavily distributed and somewhat ubiquitous. If you wanted a no-calorie beverage in a can, most of the time Tab was your only option.

    I believe Diet Coke was the first diet soda made with aspartame, which represented a huge breakthrough in artificial sweetness. Almost all of the diet soda drinkers converted, and by this time, Tab's distribution was limited because of FDA warnings (which since have been rescinded) incorrectly linking saccharin to cancer.

    As yucky and inferior as Tab seemed, it did develop a following. Yes, people missed their Tab, tinny taste and all. (The iconic pink packaging may have had something to do with it). Coca Cola, as you may know, is not a single-beverage company, and it certainly didn't want to discontinue a product that was still viable.

    According to Wikipedia, "Tab sales have been dwarfed by those of Diet Coke, though enough people still prefer Tab to result in a production of about 3 million cases in 2008."

    Personally I still remember exactly where I was standing when I first tried Diet Coke. To me it was like the difference between eating Carob vs Chocolate. I gave up Tab on the spot. As did all of my friends but one. None of us ever understood it. Maybe your addiction ad explains it.

  2. "The Straight Dope" reference brought me back to the days when I used the Reader columnist as my answer man for every little quandary that puzzled me. Nowadays, it's Snopes.
    But I can't let a blog on soft drinks go by without mentioning the one that is apparently very popular in Korea. I first noticed it in the Incheon airport: a standard soft drink dispenser that one would expect to contain Coca Cola, Pepsi, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, or even Canada Dry, but lo and behold, in big bold letters was the name: "SWEAT." I originally thought Koreans might pronounce it "sweet," but "sweat" is deliberate; it's supposed to be a go-to drink for people perspiring heavily, as it replaces electrolytes lost when one exercises a lot.

    1. Here is an example of conflicting facts, you decide who is right. Back in the late 80's or early 90's, one of our largest clients was Maytag Refrigeration Products in Galesburg, where they manufactured refrigerators. At that time The Straight Dope had an item about managers at a Chinese factory being executed for shipping refrigerators that didn't work. I mailed them the entire article along with monthly reports. Someone posted it on their office bulletin board, and at least one manager told me he had already heard about the story, and found the other items amusing. When I saw this Snopes story about the incident, I emailed The Straight Dope about it, they replied articles that far back were not digitized, so they couldn't confirm the story.

  3. To the best of my knowledge, TaB was the first sugar free soda. Diet conscious woman accepted the horrid after taste for the low calories. No man I know ever had more than one can of the stuff, probably 99% had fewer than three sips. Why anyone would still drink it today is as deep a question as why a Christian would vote for Trump.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.