The Pepsi Challenge


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As the Coke and Pepsi empires waged fizzy war for American taste buds in the 1970s, the world stood at a tense crossroads.

With Cold War fears simmering and the OPEC oil crisis rattling global economies, these soda overlords poured millions into advertising their battlefield: the sugary allegiances of the humble American shopper.

While political upheavals challenged assumptions worldwide, Pepsi's 1975 "Pepsi Challenge marketing gambit would reshape assumptions around America's soda preferences—inaugurating a new era of brand warfare fought sip by cunning sip.


an old woman partaking in the Pepsi Challenge
Source: PepsiCo

In 1975, the simmering feud between cola giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo bubbled over into outright aggression.

Pepsi unveiled its masterstroke—the "Pepsi Challenge," a devious new marketing campaign leveraging America's predilection for sweetness to shift the tide of the Cola Wars in their favor.

Under the guise of an innocent taste test, Pepsi representatives coaxed shoppers at malls and markets to compare sips of the two sodas.

Unbeknownst to the guinea pig consumers, Pepsi stacked the deck—capitalizing on the human instinct to prefer cloyingly sweet libations in small samples.

Though single blind in format—participants learned which soda was which afterwards—the challenge achieved its insidious goal. More testers picked the Pepsi sip, granting the underdog brand a surge of perceived superiority.

Armed with dubious statistics seemingly proving Pepsi's primacy in palatability, the challenger dealt a cunning blow against Coke's supremacy.

Their advertising blitz over the coming decade would hammer home the message: Pepsi was now number one in deliciousness, if only by a sip. The opening salvo of Pepsi's challenge heralded a new phase of cutthroat competition in the escalating Cola Wars.


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While Pepsi trumpeted the Challenge's vote for its sweet flavor as a decisive triumph, later research would cast doubt on the contest's integrity.

Investigations revealed that the Challenge's simple sip test was scientifically skewed to play to Pepsi's strengths—an advantage Pepsi leveraged to treat consumers to a cunning campaign of deception.  

As author Malcolm Gladwell exposed in his book Blink, the tiny taste test doses gave sweeter Pepsi an unfair edge.

Human taste buds naturally prefer syrupy sweetness in tiny volumes—handing the sodas' differing sugar levels an outsized impact on sip-sized impressions.

And with Pepsi boasting a fuller sweetness than the rival Coke Classic, the sip test's myopic format all but ensured aPepsi preference.

In effect, Pepsi had shamelessly exploited a sugary shortcut to dupe consumer taste buds into crowning its soda the victor—for a fleeting sip, not the whole drinking experience.

Their underhanded reliance on the sip test's flawed sweet-tooth bias cast doubt over the Challenge's legitimacy as an impartial judge of soda supremacy. But such ethical equivocations meant little to Pepsi as they trumpeted their taste test pseudo-victory from every billboard.

A cunning feat of subterfuge had handed them their coveted marketing coup.


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An insidious psychological factor also contaminated the Challenge's already-corrupted sip test: brand bias.

Researchers discovered that the visible branding of each sip produced a prejudice potent enough to override taste bud objectivity—rendering consumers' judgments as fickle as their fleeting loyalties.

In many taste-offs, Pepsi cups bore an "M", Coca-Cola a "Q". Study participants arbitrarily assigned preference to the letter M that translated to favoring its Pepsi bearer—suggesting that subconscious symbol biases could eclipse substance in swaying choice.

More disturbingly, researchers found that tagging taste cups with the soda brand names alone significantly swung the vote towards the already-preferred product. Though the flavor was the same, the effect of brand recognition on shaping instinct was enough to tamper with impartiality.

In truth, the Challenge made taste a secondary factor by leaving their contest of flavors prey to the consumers' mercurial whims.

Brand allegiance held greater power—Coke vs Pepsi was less a measure of sweetness than a clumsy reading of America’s ever-shifting moods.

Their “taste test” had deteriorated into a glorified popularity contest where Pavlovian passion reigned and reason retired, defeated.


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While Pepsi and Coca-Cola bitterly vied for soda supremacy through the 70s and 80s, objective laboratory analysis revealed an inconvenient truth undermining their frothy rivalry: science could barely distinguish between the two sugary beverages.  

Rigorous double-blind taste studies exposed the shocking lack of contrast between the dueling sodas.

Despite splashy ad campaigns polarizing Cola choice as a profound matter of identity, researchers casually confirmed what the brands refused to admit—Pepsi and Coke possessed practically indistinguishable flavors.

Even more deflating, scientists failed to differentiate Pepsi from bargain-brand RC Cola in side-by-side samplings.

Yet through flashy media hype and celebrity glitz, the soda giants had successfully imbued their virtually identical brown fizz waters with auras of major sensorial distinction.  

In reality, the high-budget marketing bordering on propaganda had exaggerated trivial taste dissimilarities into a cultural fiction of fundamental preference—profit-driven studio alchemy transmuting nearly identical caramel liquids into icons of opposing identity.

Taste had become all but irrelevant—the Cola Wars were a $100 million drama staged over two sugars with no discernible flavor variation.


portrait of Dave Barry
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While Pepsi and Coke poured fortunes into proclaiming their fundamental flavorful difference, comedian Dave Barry opted to gleefully spotlight the bogus spectacle's ironic absurdity: "Pepsi’s ongoing misguided attempt to convince the general public that Coke and Pepsi are not the same thing, which of course they are."

With a wry chuckle and twist of phrase, Barry highlighted the Scheme's farcical yet effective efforts to reshape reality.

Though laboratory equipment registered Coke and Pepsi as practically chemically identical, through sheer marketing muscle the sodas had successfully insinuate themselves into the cultural consciousness as beverages representing profound preference.

Like a modern Hans Christian Andersen, satirist Barry mocked the brands' pretentious marketing emperor, perceptively needling their naked new soda claim.

To the raw scientific data, Pepsi and Coke were—of course—practically the same substance.

Yet the soda giants had nevertheless persuaded millions of customers to pass fervent judgment on drinks separated only by imagination.

With his razor wit, Barry encapsulated the ridiculous spectacle of America's adherence to an imaginary demarcation between two fantastically similar sodas.

By fanning bogus distinctions, Pepsi and Coke had conjured brand identities from thin air, transforming negligible differences in sugary waters into symbols freighted with meaning for millions.


A pepsi Challenge outside
Source: PepsiCo

After laying dormant in the new millennium, Pepsi revived its vintage subterfuge for a fresh platform and audience.

In 2015 the brand dusted off the Challenge playbook to stage a digital resurgence—doubling down on their gambit to dupe consumers into crowning Pepsi the taste test winner.

Updating the vintage campaign for contemporary channels, Pepsi enlisted an influencer marketing blitz mobilizing celebrity brand ambassadors across social media.

Pop icons like Nicki Minaj exhorted followers to post sugar-fueled Pepsi praise with hashtagged #PepsiChallenge updates.

The relaunched Challenge represented a classic formula retooled for modern digital dominance: hire stars to amplify propaganda, drown out reasonable doubts in a dizzying flood of hype, and watch sales bubble over.  

And initially, the results seemed sweet.

Trending hashtags and a fresh generation immersed in the campaign delivered a momentary spike in mindshare and market share—suggesting the classic ruse still held fizzy potential. But the revival ultimately fell flat, failing to spark a full-blown Challenge comeback.

For most, the blatant shrill cries of celebs ran sour—a sign perhaps that the classic con's moment had finally lost its fizz.