"You may as well buy a bag of sugar!" said my college colleague Jim Leffman, sometime in 1992. I have him to thank for not buying a can or bottle of Coca Cola ever since.
The stuff still sells well, of course, but there has been an element of "danger" for a while now about purchasing Coke rather than its white-canned, dietary alternative, and I'm assuming that it's kids who still prefer the Capstan full-strength version. Certainly most adults I have seen quaffing this most recognisable of vegetable extracted drinks choose the Silk Cut alternative. And none of them are ever on a diet. I always laugh when, having been forced into a branch of McDonalds, I see teenage girls ordering Diet Coke for health reasons - while also eating a Big Mac and large fries.
I can't say, of course, that I've never drunk it since Jim's words of wisdom, which were uttered in the Darlington sunshine as I and two other pals returned with a bit of lunch to a patch of grass where Jim was reclined, awaiting us. I went through a phase of drinking Bacardi and Coke (as the option for when the belly was saying "no more beer, ta") on nights out, and not once did I ask for the diet option. The taste of Bacardi tends to obliterate any evidence of saccharin, anyway.
The strength of the brand (and the fact that all rival colas, including Pepsi, have always tasted appalling by comparison) means that Coke will always survive, irrespective of its lack of conduciveness to a healthy lifestyle. All things in moderation, and so on. But that brand strength has always been maintained by some truly memorable advertising campaigns.
There was the I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing effort from the 1970s, the first of quite a few ads designed to show that Coke transcends political struggles and international grievances, and can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere. My particular school era recalls First Time rather well, with that slightly sick-making school dance cobblers advert set to the warbles of Robin Beck who promptly took the de-Coked version to No.1 in loads of places and then disappeared. That advert irks me still now, as no teenage girl ever just goes all quivery and giggly and says "yes" when a suspiciously-ginger bloke in a white jacket asks her to dance. They laugh at you, swear profusely in your direction and then dance with someone taller who can illegally access an uninsured moped at a moment's notice.
I did like the 1990s ad of the bloke singing along to his Walkman (a la Eddie Murphy doing Roxanne, only more tunefully) and ended with the line "always Coca Cola" as he spots the girl in a nearby seat swigging from a bottle. And I have faint memories of an ad from the late 1970s of a young boy carrying one of those glass two-litre bottles (15p return) and offering it to a boxer (?) who, after initially declining, drinks the whole thing in one (which is impossible, frankly). I'm sure Cadbury's ripped off that ad for a Mini Roll commercial a few years later.
Diet Coke brings to mind three ads; Elton John's pointless roustabout on the piano (around the same time he did identical ads for Cadbury's chocolate); the one-fortnight-per-summer "Just for the
Diet Coke did, at first, taste really peculiar when it was released. All that Nutrasweet promotion was going on, as if the logo for this more healthy sweetening option was a bolted-down guarantee that you wouldn't suffer from gum disease, obesity or brain damage if you used this instead of shameless sugar. But they did alter it eventually and for a long time after Jim's comments, I drank no other soft drink at all. Indeed, it's only in the last couple of years or so that I've restricted my intake and switched to dilute fruit drinks (having been a C-Vit addict in my schooldays, complete with post-luncheon blackcurrant moustache that my mate Vinny still reminds me about to this day). But I had some in France recently, where it is labelled Coca Cola Light, of course, and thought it tasted vile. I've never had Coke Zero. Is it any good? Or is it going to last as long as those caffeine-free and cherry versions did?
One other random memory of Coke as a kid; the "Enjoy Coca Cola" and "Enjoy Coke" slogans did produce a spoof T-shirt, written in black lettering on white material, which had the words "Enjoy Cocaine" thereon, in as close to the swishing, circular Coca Cola font as they could manage. I didn't know what cocaine was.
And under no circumstances does Coca Cola turn you into an axe-wielding, homicidal maniac...