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Coke, Pepsi Duke It Out Over Diet Drinks

July 8, 1988

ATLANTA (AP) _ The nation’s two largest soft drink companies are trying to enlist TV networks in their attacks on each other, asking ABC, NBC and CBS to quit showing their competitor’s ″misleading″ advertising.

The Pepsi-Cola Co. is running ads featuring heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson claiming Diet Pepsi is ″undisputed champion,″ beating Diet Coke ″in recent taste testing ... 55 percent to 45 percent.″

The Coca-Cola Co. says Pepsi’s claims are wrong and, even before the ads began airing, complained to the networks.

But Coke didn’t wait for the networks to decide. It began its own series of ads with a fight motif, saying: ″It was a mismatch from the opening. ... Yet once again in taste tests, Diet Coke beats Diet Pepsi. Diet Coke, the winner and still champion.″

The two companies are trying to get a larger sip of the $40 billion retail soft drink market, dominated by Coke.

″Both companies are becoming increasingly aware of the stakes in the diet market,″ said Jesse Meyers, publisher of the trade journal Beverage Digest.

Diet colas are outselling sugared varieties by four or five times, Meyers said. ″The diet drinker is more brand loyal and a heavier, no pun intended, consumer, so the stakes for the diet market have been raised because there are more players and consumption.″

Meyers said the latest sales figures, from April, show Coke with an increasing share of the diet market.

Coke’s main diet drinks, Diet Coke and Caffeine Free Diet Coke, had a 10.1 percent share of the take-home market in April, an increase of 0.5 percent worth $200 million from the previous April, Meyers said. Diet Pepsi and Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi were up 0.3 percent to 6.9 percent, an increase of $120 million in sales.

Pepsi spokesman Tod MacKenzie, however, said the company had ″startling and dramatic news to announce,″ so it signed Tyson and filmed a staged news conference even before the boxer retained his heavyweight crown with a 91- second knockout of Michael Spinks on June 25.

Before Pepsi’s ad appeared June 23, the Saturday prior to the fight, Coke was complaining it was inaccurate, saying its own tests showed Diet Coke won 52.1 percent to 42.8 percent.

″The Coca-Cola Company has reason to believe that Diet Pepsi may soon be making either a taste superiority or a taste parity claim with respect to Diet Coke,″ says a June 22 letter from the Atlanta-based company to Harvey Dzodin, an executive at ABC’s Broadcast Standards and Policies department.

″The purpose of this letter is to challenge any such claim on the grounds that it is false and misleading. ... (We) urgently request that since our research unequivocally confirms the taste superiority of Diet Coke over Diet Pepsi, that you withdraw broadcast approval of any such claim by Diet Pepsi.″

Similar requests were made of CBS and NBC, Coke spokesman Carlton Curtis said, and all three networks asked Pepsi for its test data.

Pepsi responded by telling Dzodin on June 27 that Coke’s ad ″is misleading ... (and) factually inaccurate,″ and asked that it be withdrawn. Similar letters were sent to NBC and CBS.

Each questions the other’s methodology and claims the competitor has glossed over changes in its drink’s formula.

All three networks are considering their responses, according to spokesmen.

Pepsi plans to continue the campaign, MacKenzie said, and a second ad featuring Tyson and his wife, actress Robin Givens, will air later this month.

Coke, meanwhile, has begun its main summer campaign featuring characters from the movie ″Who Framed Roger Rabbit.″

Meyers says both companies stand to win from the dispute by ″cleverly raising the consumer consciousness.″

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