WASHINGTON — Gay Mullins would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Unfortunately for the Coca-Cola company, what Mullins would like to teach the world to sing is that it hates the new taste of Coke. From his Seattle headquarters, Mullins has launched a grass-roots media blitz designed to force Coke to return to its old formula.
Mullins was scheduled to appear with a Coca-Cola executive on ABC's "Good Morning, America" last Monday to discuss this major issue of our time, or at least of our month, but his appearance was mysteriously scrubbed at the last minute. Mullins suspects that pressure from Coca-Cola forced him off the program.
Executive Producer Phyllis McGrady says that's not so. "This was totally a producer's decision," she said from New York. "There was absolutely no pressure from my advertisers or my legal departments."
Coca-Cola is a bit jumpy about Mullins, a 57-year-old retired businessman with a folksy white beard right out of a Post Grape-Nuts commercial. He'd already appeared on "The CBS Evening News" last Friday. Mullins is so disgusted by the new taste of Coke, introduced by the company in May, that he says he sank $30,000 of his own money into a "war chest" to rally opposition.
"It's no joke," Mullins says from Seattle. "I'm mad. This makes me angry. I'm angry, and I'm mad. I feel injured. Betrayed. Like a sacred trust has been violated. I know people who are going through withdrawal without their Coca-Cola. People are having anxiety headaches. They've been placed in a distressed state!
"It's the post-Coke syndrome. People are so shocked by this, they worry that maybe the whole country is beginning to fall apart. They don't even trust themselves any more," Mullins says. He thinks that when Coca-Cola tampered with its formula, it might as well have been tampering with mom's apple pie. Coca-Cola was supposed to be a constant in life. There are so few.
Of course at the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta, they are insisting that the public loves the new taste of Coke. A mammoth advertising campaign, biggest in the company's history, has been launched to convince everybody that the new Coke is just what the doctor ordered. Mullins agrees, but only if we're talking about Dr. No.
Mullins doesn't have enough money yet to buy commercial time on TV, but he did the next best thing: opened shop with a 900 telephone number that similarly distressed consumers could call. The number has been disconnected now, but during its brief week of existence Mullins claims to have received more than 10,000 calls (at 50 cents a pop, so to speak, to the callers).
Those who called heard a plaintive country-Western tune contributed by a Tennessee sympathizer and a rabble-rousing message: "Let's get Coca-Cola to start making that old Coke again--or release the formula so someone else can!" The recording referred callers to the 206 (Seattle) number of Old Cola Drinkers of America, the group Mullins founded to fight the dread Newcoke.
Meanwhile, at Pepsi-Cola headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., there's considerable delight over Mullins' shenanigans. Pepsi had already launched its own advertising campaign in which puzzled cuties note that Coke changed its 60-year-old formula, then ask the immortal question: "But why?"
When contemplating the mess Coca-Cola seems to have created for itself, Pepsi spokesman Rebecca Madeira sighs, "Oh, how embarrassing! Here we are heading into the key selling month, July, when even non-cola drinkers will reach for a cola, and Coke does something like this." Madeira says Mullins and his group are symptomatic of "a very real concern about a product change that's not popular. Consumers are angry about it."
Soft-drink sales are measured in Nielsen points, just like TV shows. A.C. Nielsen market research is "the gold standard" for this industry too, Madeira says. In the world of soft drinks, each Nielsen share point equals 27 million cases of soda pop, or $116 million in sales. Nielsen sales figures are not yet in on the new Coke taste, but Madeira says Pepsi's own consumer surveys show cola drinkers don't like Newcoke any more than Mullins does.
The fight goes on. And what will be the battleground? Television, of course. Pepsi will try to convince the country that it hates the new Coke (which people have been heard to say tastes like "a flat Pepsi," incidentally), and Coke will insist that it's simply taught the world to sing a new song.