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“Oh god, that’s terrible!”

Posted in America,Consumerism by catradhtem on the December 21st, 2015
I know I risk turning in all of my cool-person cards–and I have so many–but I need to disclose something to all four of you. It’s not something I’m ashamed of at all, but when I do mention it to another person I tend to get odd looks and follow-up questions.

I don’t drink coffee.

I never had a desire to do so. I simply don’t like the taste of it. I don’t care what’s done to it: blend it, ice it, steam it, sweeten it, top it with some kind of whipped goo, whatever. I just don’t like coffee, and the closest I will come to that sludge is a jamocha shake at Arby’s.

When it comes to caffeine, I tend to lean toward what we call around these parts “pop” but what’s also known as “soda,” “Cokes,” “tonic”…uh, let’s say also “swamp water,” and, um, “gloopy-gloop,” depending on the part of the country you live in–because evidently we have such a hard-on for making English our official language that we can’t even decide on the same words for certain common items. If I’m lucky I will sometimes also partake in either a glass or cup of tea, which is all the more easier now that I’m married to a tea connoisseur, but pop is usually my default soft drink of choice…and since I don’t drink alcohol anyway, let’s just say it’s my default drink, period.

I can’t say that I’m a big follower of pop news, but when something pretty cool comes along it tends to fascinate me. Several years ago, Coca-Cola unveiled this…I don’t know exactly how to put it…this, thing. It is one such pretty cool thing; some would say downright awesome. It’s perhaps one of the most ingenious innovations the soft drink industry has ever stumbled upon.

Coke unveiled the Coca-Cola Freestyle.

Coke FreestyleWhat is the Coca-Cola Freestyle, you ask? Well, you may know it as “that cool Coke thing,” but in its most simplistic essence, it’s a soda fountain, much like the ones you would find inside any fast food establishment that allows one to dispense their own drinkage into their own paper drinkage cuppage. Typically those work by you–as the mindless consumer devoid of any power and control–delicately placing your empty, and usually hideously decorated, paper cup under one of as many as six or seven pop options and then filling your cup, either via a button or latch or whatever. Your choice is usually limited in large part because the company and/or franchise owner running said restaurant is bottomlessly unimaginative (seriously, apart from White Castle, who else is going to offer red cream soda in their fountain?) but also because “shelf space,” so to speak, is so limited and there are only x number of selections that can be offered; and too many of which are considered essential for a soda fountain. If we’re dealing with Coke products you will always find Coke Classic, Diet Coke, and Sprite. The other few remaining slots probably normally go to brands such as Barq’s Root Beer, the vile Country Time Lemonade, maybe a Hi-C flavor, and usually Dr Pepper even though Coke doesn’t own the property and in most parts of the country doesn’t even bottle it. If you’re lucky, on the side of the machine you can sometimes also find a button in order to just dispense plain old water, because doesn’t that just hit the spot when you’re consuming salty, fatty fast food?

But the Coca-Cola Freestyle is a different animal altogether. Looking like a cross between an old school “drop cup and fill” vending machine and the Suicide Booth from Futurama, it’s all operated on a touchscreen. The machine greets you with a welcome screen displaying all the known Coca-Cola Company brands, including some that they don’t even offer at the grocery store. Old standbys such as Coca-Cola Classic, Sprite, and Coke Zero are there, sure, but so are Pibb Xtra, Fanta, and even Mellow Yellow Zero (don’t worry, it still tastes just like fermented sewer water). Once you make your brand selection you’re taken to a new screen where you get to pick your flavor of said beverage! With typically six to eight different additional flavors available for each drink, the possibilities increase tenfold. Just plain old Diet Coke too boring for you? Then how about Diet Coke Raspberry? Pibb Xtra Zero too Diet Dr Peppery for you? Then try Cherry Vanilla Pibb Xtra Zero!

The whole machine operates like a computer printer, where the various syrup flavors and base pop flavors are contained in individual cartridges like toner. When you make some crazy combination of soda and flavor the machine will mix the various elements in a certain ratio, just like when you need to print out something with a variety of different colors. You’re essentially drinking #F4A460! Taste that cyan!

I like the Freestyle for a couple of reasons. One, it’s amusing to see which obscure brand names Coke still believes can be relevant in 2015, such as Mr. Pibb and Mellow Yellow (I wouldn’t be surprised if certain Freestyle machines also offered Tab and Fresca). But also, as any of my Twitter or Faccibukke friends know, I’m a staunch opponent of high fructose corn syrup, the vile synthetic non-sugar goo that’s found in most regular pop brands because it’s cheaper than using actual sugar (maybe it wouldn’t be if corn farmers didn’t receive huge, unnecessary government subsidies and tax breaks?). Traditional pop fountains don’t usually offer any diet flavors beyond the respective brand’s signature diet cola–to say nothing of sit-down restaurants where the servers’ eyes cross in confusion if you should ask if they serve anything diet besides Coke or Pepsi, as if “diet” is a singular flavor in of itself. So it’s comforting to be able to choose from more than just ONE diet pop, be it Diet Barq’s or Sprite Zero or Pibb Xtra Zero or whatever. And hey, if I do want to add a goofy flavor to it once in a while, it’s only going to add a calorie or two and a trivial amount of sweetener. It makes the diet-pop drinker feel like they’re not just being relegated to that restaurant ghetto set up to appease people from Weight Watchers.

I did such an experiment the last time the family and I went out to a local Five Guys. I wanted to try something truly bizarre, something that I doubt I would ever see on a grocery store shelf (in this country, anyway). I decided adding a unique fruit flavor to normal plain old Diet Coke would be fun to try–hey, after all, I buy Diet Coke Lime for home from time to time (I’m drinking a can of it now as I type this). So I pressed the “Diet Coke Orange” button. I doubt I was the first to do so, and I doubt I will be the last…but I will say that if anyone ever orders that again, it certainly won’t be me.

“Oh god, that’s terrible!” was the utterance heard around the table. I’m not quite sure I could accurately describe the strange mix of bitterness and gooey sweetness that hit my tongue. If I had to approximate it, I would try to put it in the same category as that taste you get when you drink orange juice after brushing your teeth. It was nasty; I imagine it was on the same “ick” scale as repulsive-sounding crap like bacon-flavored vodka. But I had to finish the cup. I was committed to seeing it through to the end. I chalk it up as a horrible attempt, but that’s all a part of the fun of the Coca-Cola Freestyle.

And while we’re on the subject, can I just really quickly ask that we as a society drop this infantile fixation on bacon? Despite what a shirt at Hot Topic may suggest, you’re not a “hipster” for wanting to make fatty strips of pork a part of every meal; that’s called a “slob.” And don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against bacon as a breakfast meat per se, but we’ve really got to stop celebrating obesity and the things that cause it. It’s unhealthy for us on a psychological level. We need to stop treating competitive eating as a sport worthy of ESPN coverage and making a celebrity out of that Man vs. Food asshole. Wait no, scratch all that; let’s keep that up. Let’s encourage these idiots to keep doing what they’re doing, because you know what kind of people eat bacon at every meal? Dead people! Let’s see if they can purge themselves from our culture. I’m glad they’re now finding cancer links.

But anyway, what’s really, really funny about the Freestyle is its secret corporate ulterior motive. You didn’t really think the Coca-Cola Company was doing something this innovative out of the goodness of their hearts, did you? They didn’t concoct it after some vague, soda-based “I have a dream” ideal. No no, the true purpose of the Coca-Cola Freestyle is to provide that most treasured of corporate assets: consumer market research data.

You see, the Coca-Cola Freestyle records every iteration of every pop that’s ordered on it, saving and filing it the way a survey keeps track of demographic data. Periodically Coke downloads the information to see what everyone’s been ordering, compiling a sort of internal Billboard chart of their products. Obviously, the more known products such as Coke Classic, Sprite, etc. are going to be among the most ordered, but the company takes a bigger interest in the various flavored mixtures that are concocted. Coke uses this information to see what kinds of new brands and new flavors might be worth their while to either test-market or introduce on a national scale.

It’s a savvy, sneaky way of developing new product and doing field research without investing a dime (apart from manufacturing the machines, of course). And isn’t that what current America’s all about anyway, having someone else do all the hard work and take all the risk without making any personal investment yourself? How else does a concept like Kickstarter become popular? “I want to make a movie by myself but not sink a single penny of my own money into it, so I’ll beg people to Paypal me their money and I’ll promise to send them a script page or something stupid.” Let’s face it, Coke isn’t letting these people play on the Freestyles for free; you’re still buying a soft drink from them and their restaurant partners. Coke loses nothing in selling someone Mellow Yellow Zero Raspberry. They exert no energy finding out if people like it or not. Everyone in this country wants to be Huckleberry Finn, even though most of them have probably never read the book. It’s too much work.

But as far as lazy research and development goes, the Coca-Cola Freestyle is a work of genius, but it also might be the company’s undoing; its Achilles Heel Zero, if you will.

Imagine this hypothetical situation….

Let’s say, to name a rival company, Pepsi wanted to cripple Coca-Cola and cause it to waste millions of dollars in product development, market research, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, etc. Yeah, yeah, I know, it sounds crazy, but Coke has pretty much set it up to allow such a thing to happen.

The first thing Pepsi would need to do is locate all the known Freestyle machines in the country, a lengthy but not impossible task (Coke even provides a web site just for that purpose). Once such locations are mapped out, Pepsi could easily coordinate with its various local bottlers to recruit and/or hire a group of part-time workers or interns for each city. Local “street teams” are nothing new; in fact, with viral marketing and social media they are in fact a bit on the way out…and if there’s any one entity to fully utilize a marketing gimmick that’s quickly becoming irrelevant, it’s corporate America.

So each street team sets up a schedule to determine when each member will hit each Freestyle on which day and time. Meanwhile, Pepsi picks one, and only one, completely revolting Coke flavor–for the sake of argument, let’s just say Diet Coke Orange.

It is now up to each member of the local street teams to go to their nearest Coca-Cola Freestyle and do nothing but fill their cups with Diet Coke Orange, with a new person on the team hitting the Freestyle every day. Pepsi pays for their drink, their expenses, and their time. What American would not want to get paid for simply driving to a fast food joint and buy pop? They don’t even need to drink it; just purchase it and select the flavor on the screen.

You now have a whole country of pop consumers willingly and knowingly selecting Diet Coke Orange out of their local Freestyle machine. Coca-Cola has no choice but to see these sales figures and think, “Well, this must be what Americans want now!” Nobody can predict what the next big “flavor” is going to be. Remember when mango was popular for about three months? Pomegrante? Kiwi? We’re already seeing such a demand for orange, such as its baffling inclusion in Listerine and Crest products (whatever happened to avoiding the taste of orange while brushing your teeth?). A sudden, supposed grassroots surge in popularity for a Diet Coke Orange drink isn’t too farfetched.

But the reality is that it does truly suck, but Coke is just listening to their supposed consumer base, regardless if it made sense to them. After all, they thought everyone was going to go gaga over New Coke before public demand forced them to think otherwise. And if anyone who has ever visited the Coke-sponsored exhibit at EPCOT can tell you, the company isn’t necessarily against offering oddball flavors internationally.

So Coke spends billions of dollars to roll out Diet Coke Orange, a product that they are convinced the public will love…because that is what the public has already told them (supposedly). A huge ad campaign is plotted, commercials starring Bruce Willis are shot and sent to movie theaters to show before the trailers, there is some big Super Bowl tie-in sweepstakes, and pretty much every American consumer is made aware of this awesomely big new product that is on the horizon.

And it bombs big time.

And I don’t mean it simply underperforms. I’m talking New Coke failure…Crystal Pepsi failure…Josta failure…Henry Cavill Man from U.N.C.L.E. failure. It becomes one of the biggest corporate misfires in American history. Coke loses credibility and faces the worst quarter in its existence, while Pepsi not only thrives but also delivers the final sting by offering a new ad slogan for Diet Pepsi like “Why fool around with perfection?”

To the average American it will seem like a colossal error in judgement, when in actuality everything will have gone according to plan…for Pepsi.

You see, Pepsi at least understands how dangerous it is to put the fate of insane-sounding pop flavors solely in the hands of the public. In 1991 the company introduced a bizarre trio of fruit-flavored Pepsi colas in very limited release, literally just over the course of the summer…and in self-contained multi-packs, yet. It was probably the only time Pepsi test-marketed a product as deep into the wilderness as Northeast Ohio. The flavors were Pepsi Raging Razzberry, Pepsi Strawberry Burst, and Pepsi Tropical Chill. They were definitely a mixed bag. One or two of the flavors were, if memory serves, delightfully sweet. The other one, maybe the raspberry one, was forgettable but never as vile as the aforementioned Diet Coke Orange. Pepsi didn’t need a super-computer novelty toy to research and market these three new sodas. They simply quietly brought it out and, when it was clear that nobody was begging for more, quietly took it away. If Pepsi was to unveil their own version of the Freestyle, god knows what nasty-sounding, nasty-tasting Mountain Dew variation would catch on among teenage mall douchebags.

And that’s what’s so simultaneously awesome and hilarious about the Coca-Cola Freestyle: it blindly trusts us to make the right decisions that could potentially affect the whims of a major corporation. The fools! We’re idiots. We can’t distinguish quality on our own. We follow dumb trends and go see bad movies and listen to lousy music. We make Avatar and Titanic the two highest grossing movies of all time. We let a major recording artist get away with beating the shit out of his girlfriend, who just happens to be another major recording artist.We let some creepy home-schooled religious zealot molest his sisters just because he stars on a reality show. We let a president get away with lying us into a war, and a vice president with shooting someone in the face. We have a rich billionaire fuck convince poor people that being provided with government-guaranteed affordable health care is a bad thing that they should be ashamed of enjoying. We are a nation of intellectual and cultural lemmings, and our deluded perception of choices vary from what we’re used to and “Oh god, that’s terrible!”

I also bring all this up now because supposedly certain Freestyle machines are now offering seasonally themed flavors of its products, including gingerbread. I honestly can’t imagine something like, say, Gingerbread Fanta Zero being popular anywhere in the world.

Well okay, maybe Japan.

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