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October 26, 1986|Ed Cray

THE REAL COKE, THE REAL STORY by Thomas Oliver (Random House: $16.95; 213 pp.). After seven years, Pepsi Cola had ridden its Pepsi Generation and Pepsi Challenge ads into a virtual tie for sales leadership with Coca-Cola. Coke, or, more accurately, some of that company's managers and bottlers, was concerned. The 100-year-old soft drink born in John Pemberton's Atlanta, Ga., pharmacy as a nerve and tonic stimulant had lost its taste appeal.

Coke's response was coolly plotted, meticulously researched, artfully introduced--and a stunning fiasco. Having determined to change the secret formula for Coca-Cola to make it sweeter, the company discovered that a very large percentage of the drinking public resented this tampering with eternal verities.

One of the nation's shrewdest business firms had goofed. In two months, the old formula, repackaged as "Classic" Coca-Cola, was back on supermarket shelves.

Big deal. Despite the hype--two of the three national networks led their newscasts with the announcement of new Coke--the fact is that it was a modest business story blown out of proportion on the front page.

So, too, Atlanta newsman Thomas Oliver's book. This account of Coke's misstep in the garden of earthly delights, even cast as the sociological portrait it is not, might have been worth a 5,000-word article in Beverage World. It is not worth an overwritten 55,000 words, especially in a book that manages to be so dull in such a short span.

What's the big deal? Six out of eight new food products fail to catch on. So Coke blew it. That is no reason for Random House to do the same.

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