Here, let's say it all right upfront: This editorial is low-cal, lo-carb, caffeine-free and sugarless. It contains no salt, no peanuts, no foreign policy and only one gram of healthcare. It's also cholesterol-free. It does concern a subversive trend quietly underway in our society to rename diet soft drinks because, in case you haven't noticed, the fatter we get, the less popular is the word "diet."
We never did have Diet Whiskey or a credible Vodka Lite. And diet chocolate misses the whole point. There was a time way back (when music came on records) that adding the word "diet" to a soft drink made it desirable -- less sugar, calories, cavities. Diet was actually an abbreviation for "dietetic" that sounded less medicinal, still saved calories and contained half the letters.
That was a challenge, though, for marketers: sell diet as not a poor-tasting punishment but a better pleasure. Sugar Corn Pops simply dropped the word "Sugar." In 1983, new Diet Coke took the challenge head-on with its slogan, "Just for the taste of it."
But time marches on. And so have American waistlines. We are a fat people and getting fatter. Even passenger airlines must recalculate passenger flight weights now. But while awareness of growing girth increases, larger Americans have not proved particularly fond of giving much up. Marketing majors, with their creepy ability to see inside minds, picked up on that. They sensed the word "diet" taking on a more negative tone, kind of like culinary tithing.
Time for a change. Part of this is economic. It's just so expensive to introduce new products today that it makes more business sense to freshen or broaden existing products. Same cereal but stress the high fiber, whole grains. No new toothpaste, just add whitener to the tartar control version. Have you noticed that the Dodge Charger is returning? Same for movie sequels. Soft drinks are struggling anyway against juices, energy beverages and that clear, taste-free liquid that so many people carry around and even drink sometimes.
Nothing tastes worse to salespeople than feeling dated. True enough. Y2K T-shirts no longer sell well. So, with all the attention focused on the presidential election and Julia Roberts' twins, you may have missed the first big move in this surreptitious soft drink struggle. Are you ready?
Diet Sierra Mist has become Sierra Mist Free. Same drink, but "free" is always good in America -- money, liberty, calories. Also, Diet Sprite has become Diet Sprite Zero. "Zero," once a term for a nerd, is hot this year. Watch as the word "Diet" melts from Sprite Zero, as it has in other countries. It's very American to focus on the name and forget the contents. But what's next? Could Diet Coke soon become Coke Zero?