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  THE CULT OF DIET COKE.  
   
   
  Iva-Marie Palmer quite literally wakes up with a Diet Coke, downing her first one of the day while still in the shower.

"The Diet Coke's coolness contrasted with the steam of the shower makes for an invigorating wake up that I'd recommend to the groggiest of non-morning people," says Palmer, who is the assistant director of public relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. "I have had to cut back my consumption somewhat, for fear of having my teeth rot with phosphoric acid and my sleep eliminated by the tons of caffeine, but if I could, I would drink six to 10 cans daily."

Like many Diet Coke heads, Palmer is peculiar, particular and passionate about her beverage of choice, preferring it ice-cold, on the verge of freezing, using each can to space out the events in her day, the way smokers use cigarette breaks. Because Palmer's

 
  employer is a Pepsi-only campus, she must lug cases of Diet Coke to the office to support her habit, buying in bulk when cans go on sale, protecting them from those who prey on weak, unprotected beverages in the fridge. To Palmer, there are no alternatives.

"I used to sample new Pepsi products every now and then, even tried Pepsi One for some time. Now I would never even consider it. Diet Coke is all there is for me," says Palmer. "I see it in my dreams, in my fantasies and my future."

Hyperbole?

Perhaps, but Palmer is not alone. The Cult of Diet Coke is strong and slavishly devoted, making their beverage of choice the undisputed leader in diet sodas for the last two decades and the third-most popular soda in the United States, trailing only Coca-Cola and Pepsi. And nowhere is this cult stronger than in the worlds of media and politics, where publicists, pundits and the people they orbit demand the Real Thing.

Diet Coke is asked for, by name, in contract riders from a wide variety of artists, ranging from Michael W. Smith to Nine Inch Nails. The old rockers love it -- REO Speedwagon, Night Ranger and the Beach Boys demand Diet Coke. So do divas Mariah Carey, Elton John and Cher. Country fried superstars Toby Keith,

   

 


   
 

Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes can't get enough. R&B and rap artists TLC and the Black Eyed Peas want their Diet Cokes, too. Even the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, had a six pack or two in his dressing room.

The high and mighty are addicted as well. Donald Trump wouldn't be caught dead with a Trump Ice bottled water, preferring Diet Coke and nothing else. Harvey Weinstein, gruff and tumble head honcho of the Miramax empire, rides in a limo stocked with Diet Coke. John Edwards, failed presidential candidate, has been known to drink as many as 10 Diet Cokes while campaigning -- a habit endorsed wholeheartedly by both of the Clintons.

The Birth of the Diet Coke Cult.

It should come as no surprise that Diet Coke has become so popular with the image conscious and incredibly famous -- after all, Coke crafted this beverage specifically for them.

By 1980, Coke had determined that nearly 20% of people were drinking diet sodas, a market that was dominated by the saccharin-

     
 

flavored Tab. At the same time, sales of Jane Fonda's videotaped workout were all the rage, triggered by a boom in VCR sales, in the same way that sales of the George Foreman grill have been intensified by the rise of the no-carb Atkins revolution. With sugar-free and caffeine-free sodas already hitting the market, both Coke and Pepsi smelled opportunity and made aggressive moves towards new diet colas in the spring of 1982.

Coke launched Diet Coke in July 1982 with a $100 million ad campaign, putting the swooshy wave trademark on a product other than Coca-Cola for the first time since 1886, when the company was formed. With an up and coming newcomer, Pepsi, boasting strong sales for 7-Up and rolling out caffeine-free sodas, the move had Coke supporters doubting the company could pull it off.

"If they adulterate the name of Coke, they have lost their minds," said a member of Coke's bottling committee to The Wall Street Journal. "It breaks my heart, but if they put $100 million behind it, they'll create a market for it."

And create a market they did -- especially in New York, one of Diet Coke's first markets and the target of a $12 million marketing blitz. Coke threw a gala launch party at the Radio City Music Hall, filming a commercial with the Rockettes, then busing guests over to the West Side Pier, which had been redone to look like a New York City street fair. Once there, guests ate hot dogs, tasted that wild, new diet soda and cheered when fireworks spelled out "Diet Coke" over the waters of the Hudson River.

Diet Coke was an instant smash. By Christmas of 1982, it had become the third most-popular soda in New York City, trailing only Coke and Pepsi in sales. Giddy and stunned Coke execs told Wall Street that Diet Coke was on track to become the second most popular beverage in the company's history after six months on the market, despite only being available in a third of all U.S homes. Hoping to deal a knockout blow to Pepsi's diet vision, Coke kicked production into overdrive and pushed Diet Coke in two-thirds of the U.S by the end of January 1983.

A year after being introduced, Diet Coke became the best selling low-calorie soft drink in America -- a position it has never relinquished. By 1986, Diet Coke -- or Coca-Cola Light, as it is known abroad -- was the most popular low-calorie beverage in the world, served in 61 countries.

   

 

Can Diet Coke Kill You?

One of the active ingredients in Diet Coke is aspartame, better known as NutraSweet, which was approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration about 20 years ago, paving the way for the diet soda boom.

In the years since, a number of people have begun to attack NutraSweet, claiming that aspartame can be broken down into three amino acid components, aspartate, phenylalanine, and methanol. All three can be broken down into smaller entities, called metabolites, which can be toxic. For example, methanol, or wood alcohol, can spontaneously become formaldehyde, while phenylalanine can decompose into diketopiperazine, which is a carcinogen.

In fact, conspiracy theorists credit NutraSweet for causing everything from multiple sclerosis to Gulf War syndrome, but say that "aspartame disease" is what hits most people. Symptoms of aspartame disease include headaches and dizziness … and about a billion other things. In February 1994, the Department of Heath released a list of 92 symptoms that occurred when people had an adverse reaction to NutraSweet, one of which was death.

The fine folks at AspartameKills.com are at the forefront of this expose. While their Website explains the horrors of aspartame in greater detail, their essential view is that Donald Rumsfeld and the NutraSweet people ignored the potential health risks to push approval of their wondrous sweetener. While some of what's on AspartameKills.com is notable and perhaps convincing, their tendency to dismiss government officials as Nazis makes them difficult to trust.

Now, according to a study by the NutraSweet folks, "the safety of aspartame and its metabolic constituents was established through extensive toxicology studies in laboratory animals, using much greater doses than people could possibly consume." Of course, as the tobacco industry has shown us, corporations with billion dollar products have trouble accepting that their products may be unhealthy. Can't trust NutraSweet either.

Some independent studies appear to show that aspartame is safe, though. The fine folks at the University of Minnesota's school of public health studied the effects of long-term, hard-core aspartame use in 108 volunteers. In the study, every day for 24 weeks, half of the subjects were given a placebo and the other half were given the same amount of aspartame found in 10 liters of Diet Coke. The Minnesotan researchers discovered no differences between the two groups.

Then again, a story from Oxygen magazine on the dangers of aspartame poisoning says that 90% of the independent studies conclude that it's dangerous. Conspiracy theorists note that the National Soft Drink Association initially opposed the approval of aspartame and say the government won't listen to their concerns.

All of this begs the question: Is it safe to be addicted to Diet Coke?

We have no idea. All we know is it tastes great with heroin.

 

   
 

 

From the very beginning, Diet Coke inspired missionary-level zeal in drinkers.

 

 
     

Tab's Bittersweet Legacy.

Diet Coke's path to glory was paved by the long-forgotten Tab, whose bitter, saccharine flavor first hit the market in 1963, and can be considered the gateway drug to diet colas.

But in 1982, the year that Diet Coke made its splash, Tab was the fifth-most popular soda in the U.S., pushing 237 million cases. Today, Tab flounders in saccharin hell, selling just 3.8 million cases in 2002, a 98% plunge in just 20 years. More of a niche throwback than anything else, Tab competes with Fresca for the geriatric market, clinging to a tenuous existence, popular in places like Memphis, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. (That said, Steven Brill is a fan of Tab, which tells you all you need to know.)

Until Diet Coke rolled along, Tab was one of the bigger success stories in beverages, with a solid brand name and a small degree of cultural cache. As one of the few diet beverages on the market, Tab had developed a loyal following among women, with its sloganista jingle: "Tab, Tab cola, for beautiful people." After Diet Coke had launched, Coke tried to save Tab by touting its "crisp, sassy, not-too-sweet taste," which is about as inspirational as "it's not *that* bad, try it."

Still, Coke execs were excited about reviving Tab. "We believe Tab can become the No. 2 selling low-calorie cola in food stores, just behind Diet Coke," said Sergio Zyman, senior vice president of marketing, to The Wall Street Journal. "And we're not smoking

 
 

any weed when we say that."

Who knows what they were smoking?

American audiences were hooked on the sweeter taste of Diet Coke, buying cases and ignoring headlines over the possible health risks of NutraSweet. Despite being the only other diet alternative from Coke, Tab's tinny taste failed to inspire drinkers to stay and by 1984 wasn't even one of the ten most popular sodas in the U.S. anymore.

Tab's legacy as a diet cola pioneer is largely forgotten, but it will live on as a major factor in Diet Coke's rise to dominance. Tab's loyalists were Diet Coke's first coverts, helping spread the gospel of diet soda across gender lines.

"I began my addiction with Tab as a fat kid in high school in the late 70's, but like my fellow male followers, had to drink in the shadows given the diet drink's strong female focus," said Curtis Steinhoff, director of public relations for Riester-Robb in Phoenix, Ariz. "When Diet Coke was introduced in the early 80's while I was in college, and well on my way to a slimmed-down figure, I was able to come out of the closet as a diet soda supporter. Diet Coke has always been my drink of choice."

 

 
 

The Future of Diet Coke Comes with a Twist.

Diet Coke remains the drink of choice for legions of loyal addicts, and Coke has hopes to keep them hooked with a slew of flavored versions. While this move is nothing new for the company -- it added Diet Cherry Coke in 1985 -- the company has become more aggressive over the last few years.

In 2001, it added Diet Coke with Lemon, which was roundly mocked for tasting like Lemon Pledge, forcing Coke to reformulate the beverage. In 2002, it added Diet Vanilla Coke, and at the turn of this year, Diet Coke added its fourth flavor, Diet Coke with Lime, which is selling well. Like any good competitor, Pepsi has aped Coke's moves, debuting the lemon-flavored Pepsi Twist and Pepsi Vanilla months after Coke entered the market.

But this isn't to say Pepsi can't innovate. It recently changed the Diet Pepsi can to an appealing light blue. And it has launched a new ad campaign with Jason Biggs as a pitchman, a move that has boosted sales, but won't become a cultural touchstone the way those

     
 

sizzling 1994 Diet Coke ads made Lucky Vanous a household name. Nonetheless, Pepsi's working hard to steal diet drinkers from Diet Coke, even if it means using non-diet colas to do it. At the end of the summer, the soda maker will stake a claim on a whole new product category, the "mid-calorie" cola, with the launch of the 12-ounce, lower carb, 70-calorie Pepsi Edge.

With the Atkins revolution against carbs, diet colas are booming again, the strongest segment of the non-alcoholic beverage market in 2003. This has only helped Diet Coke, which has boosted market share to 9.4% from 9% the year before. And while Diet Pepsi's sales were strong last year, allowing it to become the sixth most-popular drink -- Diet Coke drinkers are hopelessly addicted.

"I have been told 'if you knew what was in them, you would never have another one,' but I don't care," says Janis Chamoun, director of marketing at the Regis Corporation, who has six to eight cans a day. "I don't smoke, don't drink coffee, don't eat junk food. My Diet Coke addiction is my only vice. When I ask for a Diet Coke in a restaurant and they say, 'Is Diet Pepsi okay?' I say, 'No, just make it water then.' And then I make a note not to go there again."