The Coca-Cola Company first shot to the top of the low-calorie soda market after introducing Tab to the American public in 1963, quickly supplanting Royal Crown Cola’s Diet Rite. Like other diet soft-drink forerunners of the era, Tab relied on cyclamate to produce its sugar-free sweetness. But unlike its competitors, Tab acquired its name from what had been a gratuitous search in which Coca-Cola executives programmed a computer to itemize all of the four-letter words that could be produced from the alphabet in order to find the most easily pronounced name across all languages.
“We got all of [the four-letter words] you are thinking about, and threw them out of course,” Coca-Cola president J. Paul Austin told the L.A. Times in August 1963. “But we did get 30 or 40 usable words. We checked on their trademark registration and found most of them were unavailable to us. Then the chairman of our board said, ‘Let’s name it Tab.’ So we did.”
Austin went on to explain how Coca-Cola’s meticulous research had unveiled that consumers of diet soda tended to have above-average incomes, had reached middle age and hadn’t really been soda drinkers before. They also seemed to be predominantly women, a demo that diet soda advertising happily catered to. For instance, after first test-marketing their own sugar-free soda product as “Patio Cola” in 1963, the Pepsi-Cola Company launched Diet Pepsi nationally the following year, and its ads leaned heavily into the suggestion that women specifically should drink Diet Pepsi for the sake of attracting male eyeballs. Diet Pepsi drinkers were “the girls that girl-watchers watch.”
Coca-Cola countered with its “Stay in his mind — be a mindsticker” campaign, instructing women to drink Tab so that they could “have a shape he can’t forget.” It was as outdated and creepy as it sounds:
The problem was, Coca-Cola in particular had now painted themselves into a corner. Despite being the undisputed king of diet sodas by sales volume, the Tab brand was perceived as limited because it was too female and at risk of falling by the wayside in the rapidly expanding diet soda market, which by 1990 was growing at three times the rate of the traditional soda market. To counter this perception, the beverage giant deemed it necessary to create a new low-calorie soda brand.
Behold… Diet Coke!
The original Diet Coke commercial was punctuated by the presence of macho man Telly Savalas stating that he drinks Diet Coke “just for the taste of it.” Subsequent celebrity-free commercials featured actors articulating everything a marketing executive would want an everyday, blue-collar man to say to communicate the suitability of their product for consumption by men in all settings — from the dusty dugouts of local softball league game dugouts to break times in construction zones. “I don’t care if it’s diet or un-diet; it tastes great,” a respected elder fisherman confidently shared with his buddies as they casted their lures.
At the same time, Washington Post reporter Tom Shales was present at a Diet Coke promotional event when “Tab girl” and spokesmodel Lisa Parker was trotted out to assure Tab drinkers that the company wouldn’t be turning their backs on them. Meanwhile, a Coca-Cola corporate spokesperson delivered an explanation for the existence of two distinct diet soda flagship brands that began with a statement of how Tab had been directed to women while Diet Coke would be advertised to both men and women. This caused Shales to summarize the message thusly: “Tab is for the beautiful people, and Diet Coke is for real people. What the real beautiful people will drink is apparently up to them.”
To settle the matter in an unofficial way, the Detroit Free Press performed a blind taste test between Tab and Diet Coke, with both their restaurant critic and food writer stating that Tab tasted more like ordinary Coca-Cola than Diet Coke did. In an adjacent Free Press article, the president of the Coca-Cola Bottlers of Detroit openly admitted that Tab was aimed at the traditional consumer of low-calorie sodas — “suburban women” — while Diet Coke was intended for the mass market of men who were more concerned about taste but still wanted a diet cola.
“Diet Coke is positioned to capture the guy on the bowling team,” he explained.
Tab and Diet Coke: One and the same?
Syndicated Field News Service writer Rob Kasper was one of several journalists who was concerned that Coca-Cola had essentially pulled a fast one with the release of Diet Coke. In January 1983, he described how he had visited one of the many sample booths that had been arranged for taste tests of the new Diet Coke. He then filled two of the cups labeled as Diet Coke with Tab, and presented one of them directly to the aforementioned Tab spokesmodel Lisa Parker and told her that he thought Diet Coke tasted a lot like Tab. After taking a sip of the intentionally mislabeled Tab, Parker replied, “Oh no, it tastes like Diet Coke!”
“I left the Diet Coke meeting feeling slightly proud and slightly ashamed,” admitted Kasper. “I was proud that I had more evidence to support my contention that all diet drinks strip the tongue of taste buds. And I was slightly ashamed of the dirty trick I had pulled on Parker.”
Columnist Bob Greene recounted in March 1983 how he had been personally visited in his office by Coca-Cola president Brian Dyson, who presented him with his own Diet Coke to sample. During their subsequent discussion, Greene essentially got Dyson to confess that Tab and Diet Coke were both sugar-free colas with only the most superficial differences between them, if any. “Let’s just say that there are people who like to drink Tab; Diet Coke tastes different,” explained Dyson. “We will sell both of them.”
Within a year of its release, Diet Coke did successfully capture the number one diet soft drink title from Tab, which would begin a gradual fade into obsolescence that would end with its eventual discontinuation in 2020.
What’s funny is, the marketing geniuses at Coca-Cola were quite confident in their ability to advise women to diet themselves into bodies that would enable them to “stick” in men’s minds, but they clearly didn’t believe the brains of men were similarly malleable, or they simply would have advanced a campaign to admonish them that drinking Tab doesn’t make you less manly. Instead, they went with this: