After a 22-year drought, Crystal Pepsi is back in stores, and it's not alone.
Flanked by fellow beverages, Hi-C Ecto Cooler, last seen in stores in 2001, and Mtn Dew Pitch Black, which made it's last brief appearance in the summer of 2011, Crystal Pepsi's return caps off a summer of nostalgic revivals of novelty drinks.
Bob Trader, associate professor of communication at McDaniel College, said nostalgia is one of the most popular and powerful tools a marketing company has to support a product line.
"There's this idea that as parents get older, we have a rose-colored glasses view of the past that is a lot better than we actually remember," Trader said. "It's a desire to share our heritage with the future. Things considered hokey back then become kind of cool again. It's the retro thing in full swing."
In many cases, marketing companies have to rely on instinct and market research to determine whether there is any demand for their products, be they new or returning. But for many of these novelty drinks, the Internet has provided a space for large fanbases to spring up and find each other.
While the frequency of returning novelty drinks in 2016 is noteworthy, the first trailblazer in the '90s nostalgia soda wave was the return of Surge in 2014, spearheaded by the efforts of online community The Surge Movement, which worked since 2011 to bring the sugary soda back. The most visible act of The Surge Movement was their fundraiser in 2012 which resulted in a billboard down the street from Coca-Cola headquarters stating "Dear Coke, we couldn't buy Surge, so we bought this billboard instead."
Despite the brief, or in some cases, nonexistent successes of these drinks in the past, Trader said he believes there's a reason these companies have decided to bring them back now.
"Marketing companies don't use a strategy if it doesn't work," Trader said. "This is relatively innocuous. It's soda. It's not like they're trying to manipulate your brain in some piece of propaganda."
Trader said this kind of rose-colored nostalgia and call back to a golden age can be traced back to at least the 16th century. He said the political climate can have a surprising power on marketing items like these drinks.
"When you're right before a political election, it's a time when things are somewhat unstable. People are highly resistant to change," Trader said. "People start to idolize this kind of golden age in the past. I mean, it's even in [Donald] Trump's catchphrase. He wants to Make America Great Again, that's the same kind of call to the past."
To commemorate this bizarre beverage trend of the summer, the Carroll County Times has dug into the histories of these three drinks to see just what clicked with fans and to follow the sometimes long road back into stores.
Of this summer's returning drinks, Hi-C's Ecto Cooler had the longest reign, with the drink first hitting stores in 1989, promoting that summer's "Ghostbusters 2" as well as the cartoon series "Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters." In 1988, the children's cartoon "The Real Ghostbusters" featuring the animated adventures of the big screen busters, rebranded itself as "Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters," with the show taking on a more kid-friendly tone and centering Slimer's role as mascot of the group.
Ecto Cooler placed Slimer front and center in the marketing, with a cartoon rendition of the ugly little spud proudly placed on the packaging and the ghost appeared as a computer-generated character in a number of commercials advertising the drink. The bright-green citrus flavor drink was a staple in children's lunch boxes throughout the late 1980s and early '90s and proved to be so popular that it outlasted "The Real Ghostbusters" cartoon by an entire decade. By 2001 the Slimer-branded drink was discontinued, though devotees soon discovered that the Ecto Cooler recipe lived on as Shoutin' Orange Tangergreen. By 2007 all varieties of the original Ecto Cooler flavor had died.
The drink lived on through this period through fan perseverance. The Facebook page "Resurrect Ecto Cooler" has more than 13,000 likes and dozens of homemade recipes are available on websites as varied as Ghostbusters fan sites to cooking groups to general news organizations.
In November of last year, fans unearthed that Coca-Cola had renewed its Ecto Cooler trademark in preparation for the July release of the "Ghostbusters" remake, and in February the first can of the revived drink appeared on eBay, a full three months before its street date. The drink finally hit stores and Amazon.com over Memorial Day weekend, with Hi-C restoring its classic logo on the packaging for an added kick of nostalgia.
While changing rules about marketing surgary drinks to children meant Slimer could no longer take center stage on the packaging, the boxes are still proudly marked with the Ghostbusters title, to make sure fans and children know about the drinks relationship to the popular franchise. Cans of Ecto Cooler have an added gimmick of turning slime green when refrigerated.
Mtn Dew Pitch Black
Mtn Dew Pitch Black, originally styled as Mountain Dew Pitch Black, is the most recent of the returning drinks. First released in 2004, the deep-purple grape-flavored soda was tied into the Halloween season, often paired with Universal's "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." Pitch Black returned, in name only, the next Halloween season as Mountain Dew Pitch Black II, this time with an added sour flavor. Both renditions of Pitch Black lasted only a year, but Pepsi attempted a nostalgia-based revival in 2011, with their Back by Popular DEWmand promotion which brought the discontinued Pitch Black, Supernova and Typhoon into stores for only a single summer.
Pitch Black had a minor return in March of this year, appearing in Speedway locations, but its big return came this summer as part of Mtn Dew's DEWcision 2016 campaign, where it was pitted against the Taco Bell exclusive flavor Baja Blast.
Fans were asked to vote for their favorite flavor to see which would make a permenant return. Superfans showed their dedication to the brand by bathing in Mountain Dew, dyeing their hair the color of their favorite flavor and other stunts. More than 5.8 million votes were cast through the competition, with Pitch Black squeaking out a win with just 50.5 percent of the vote. In the five years between the 2011 and 2016 resurgences, Baja Blast and Pitch Black had been mentioned on Twitter more than 1.5 million times.
Crystal Pepsi was the most advertised and briefly popular of the returning favorites. The clear version of the number-two cola was first test-marketed in early 1992, and released nationwide in December. Crystal Pepsi's nationwide marketing quickly launched the drink into the public eye, coming in the midst of a clear-product wave running throughout American grocery stores. In the March 8, 1993 edition of the Carroll County Times, the paper ran an AP article by business writer Skip Wollenberg headlined "Hottest color in marketing is none at all."
The piece runs down the businesses entering into the clear product game, including see-through diswashing liquids, mouthwashes deodorants, and Miller Brewing Company's attempt at a Crystal Pepsi-like Miller Clear. Crystal Pepsi had an initial success, due to the extensive marketing campaign, but by the end of 1993, the drink was already becoming something of a pop culture joke, with its brief flash of popularity comperable to a fad like Pogs.
Saturday Night Live took on Crystal Pepsi and the clear product trend in their Oct. 2, 1993 episode starring Shannon Doherty and Cyprus Hill with a mock commercial for Crystal Gravy, featuring Julia Sweeney dipping a drumstick into a container of clear gravy while sitting on white furniture.
In comparison to the March article that described clear products including Crystal Pepsi as the hot new marketing tool, by June the Times ran a piece headlined "Clear beverages: trend or fading fad," by Scripps writer Michael Kelley. From its debut in December 1992 to March of 1993, Crystal Pepsi's market share had dropped 25 percent. By the end of the year it had dropped more than 50 percent. The drink was then pulled off of the market in 1994.
Despite its brief existence, Crystal Pepsi developed a passionate fanbase, with merchandise and even sealed expired bottles selling on auction sites like eBay. Last December, Pepsi teased the return of the drink with a contest where 13,000 six packs were sent out to winners on the Pepsi Pass app. Scalpers ended up with their hands on a large percentage of the six packs, and bottles soon began popping up on eBay for extraordinary prices.
People who spent hundreds of dollars on one of the returning Crystal Pepsi bottles probably felt a pang of regret when the company announced they were releasing the nostalgic drink in grocery stores nationwide this summer. The product launch was accompanied by a nostalgia push, with Pepsi creating a marketing campaign based around the popular '90s educational video game "Oregon Trail."
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