News & Politics

The Day New Coke Came to DC

AP Photo/Charles Kelly, file.

New Coke is coming back: The 1985 epic marketing flop will return to vending machines in a limited edition to tie in with the third season of Stranger Things. So how did things go with New Coke in DC the first time around?

Luckily, we have an account of its introduction on May 1, 1985, thanks to Washington Post reporter Joseph McLellan, who described the scene in Freedom Plaza, then known as Western Plaza, where the Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co. passed out 1,000 cases of the drink at lunchtime. Basically, it was chaos:

Barrels filled with ice cubes were set up throughout the plaza, and Coke employees would come up periodically with hand trucks to load them with cans. But none of the Coke had a chance to get cold. The average stay of a case of Coke in one of the barrels was about five seconds. When all went well, people grabbed single cans almost as soon as they hit the ice. More often, some of the crowd’s more vigorous members would grab an entire case and dash off with it.

One woman, McLellan reported, strolled through the crowd shouting,  “Anybody got some rum?”

A quick spin through the paper’s 1985 archives  shows how important New Coke was to the Washington Post‘s journalism model in the months that followed. The next day, Nancy Scannell wrote about people who hoarded the old kind of Coke. Tom Shales wrote about Gay Mullins, who organized a campaign against New Coke. Jane and Michael Stern cooked with it. After Coke relented and reintroduced the old formula as Coca-Cola Classic in July 1985, Caroline E. Mayer ranked New Coke alongside the Edsel in a virtual museum of marketing fails. Mark Russell compared it to Richard Nixon. Jonathan Yardley wrote about the debacle as a delight for “connoisseurs of corporate arrogance brought to bay.” Art Harris profiled egg-faced Coke CEO Roberto GoizuetaNell Henderson looked into how the imbroglio affected local soda fountains. In all, there were more than 40 articles either about the fiasco, or using New Coke as a metaphor for something else, or just as a peg for a joke.

Only a few mentioned the spokesperson for New Coke, who at that time was one of the most admired people in the US:

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.