A New Tab, with More Caffeine.--

The New Yorker has a brief article on both the new and old versions of Tab, a soft drink made by Coke that is often hard to find in American supermarkets:

The Talk of the Town

As if the mainstream media were not beleaguered enough, now comes word that the Coca-Cola Company is about to release a new drink called Tab Energy. The plan is to capitalize on the popularity of the Red Bull genre while trading on the retro cachet of Tab, with those iconic pink cans—-a plan that could threaten the sanctity of one of journalism’s secret, and most self-conscious, power cliques: the cult of Tab lovers, who have persisted in drinking the pioneering diet soda, despite its virtual disappearance from the market.

“This is a lonely but inspired society,” David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic Monthly and National Journal, said recently, before news of the brand’s reëngineering had spread. “You can’t imagine the purchasing and trucking and warehousing issues we address in getting Tab into Washington.”

The original Tab, which appeared in 1963, is still produced, though in dwindling quantities. . . . Coke stopped promoting the drink in the mid-eighties, after the cancer scare involving saccharin, an artificial sweetener used in Tab. Present-day Tab enthusiasts must seek out wholesalers . . . or rely on a kind of sixth soda sense—-“the ability to spot the pink,” David Edelstein, the film critic for New York, calls it—in obtaining their daily fixes.

Here in the city, drinkers include Steven Brill and Danny Goldberg, the C.E.O. of the radio network Air America, each of whom has an office fridge stocked with Tab. “I have unadulterated enthusiasm for it,” Goldberg said, adding that he has long since delegated the task of finding the stuff to an assistant.

The fact that Tab comes in a pink can and was conceived as a drink for women seems only to have bolstered the appeal—it’s a “boy named Sue thing,” according to a financier, who picked up the habit from Bradley. (Brill, just to be sure, tends to crush his Tab cans as he drains them.) Then, there is the peculiar flavor (“It tastes like metal”) and the reputation for unhealthiness, a combination that Edelstein, who has four cases delivered to his house every other week, believes gives Tab “the courage of its convictions.”

Steve Isaacs, a self-described “Tab nut” and former Washington Post editor who teaches at the Columbia Journalism School, has been told by several doctors not to drink it. “I tell them to go to hell,” he said recently.

In the mid-1960s (as I recall), the chief diet colas were Diet Rite and Tab, both marketed mostly to weight-conscious women. Coke did not want to destroy its main brand by bringing out a diet cola with the word "Coke" in its name, so it resisted coming out with Diet Coke until Diet Pepsi's long-term success finally led Coke to capitulate. Then Tab was largely orphaned, though some of us persisted in drinking it.

I never liked aspartame (Nutrasweet) much, so I prefer a cola that uses both aspartame and saccharin to one that relies on higher quantities of aspartame. And then there is Tab's lovely metallic taste. I like to say that the main advantage of Tab is that it has two carcinogens (saccharin and aspartame), though I confess that I have not reviewed the medical literature on aspartame and cancer in rodents, so I'm probably unfairly defaming a healthy product.

The new Tab, which is called Tab Energy, seems to be designed to cater to a younger crowd:

Tab Energy, for its part, is “really good-tasting,” according to a Coke spokesman, and “reminiscent of a liquid Jolly Rancher,” according to Fashion Week Daily, which recommends vodka as a mixer. The new can is slimmer, but it’s still pink, with the same Pop-art font. Whereas old Tab has thirty-one milligrams of caffeine and zero calories, Tab Energy has ninety-five milligrams and five calories. Nicole Richie is an early proponent, which seems right—more Los Angeles than New York.

Andrew Sullivan, who pointed me to the story, offered his own fragrant memories of Tab:

I have a very vivid memory of a Harvard friend of mine, with whom I've lost touch - David . . . . His room was full of two things, mainly: dozens of old socks, that had been worn a few dozen times (without ever seeing a detergent), could stand up largely by themselves, and were yellow at the edges; and countless old, empty Tab cans, some crushed, others stagnant, a few actually placed in an orderly pile, ready for consumption. David's politics at the time made Noam Chomsky look like a neocon. Mine were to the right of Reagan. But we had some of the best fights in my life, jacked up on the old cola. The unique aroma of dried-up Tab cans and encrusted foot odor has never quite left my consciousness since.

Ya gotta admit, for a totally artificial beverage that's been in competition with its own cousin Diet Coke for over 20 years, to still have as large and loyal a following as TaB does is quite impressive.
2.2.2006 8:29pm
Defending the Indefensible:
"The unique aroma of dried-up Tab cans and encrusted foot odor has never quite left my consciousness since."

One word. Ew.
2.2.2006 8:36pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
after the cancer scare involving saccharin
It wasn't saccharin it was the late, lamented, Cyclamate. Terrible fact checking by the New Yorker. Banned in 1970, it was cleared (scientifically) by the mid '80s but hasn't been rehabilitated by the Party.

My favorite fake sweetener.
2.2.2006 9:00pm
John Thacker (mail):

So the New Yorker persists in using the diaeresis where others would use hyphens or nothing at all.
2.2.2006 9:11pm
AppSocRes (mail):
I remember drinking Tab in college. I'd often leave half empty cans around and drain them a few days later if nothing else was available. Once did this with a half empty can that I'd also used as an ashtray. Didn't realize the mistake until I found little bits of tobacco leaf on my tongue. Truly Tab had such a disgusting taste that the mistake was reasonable. It was a great drink for fueling all-nighters though, back in the days when I had to crank out ten-page term papers on a manual Olivetti portable that my mother gave me as a high school graduation present.
2.2.2006 9:44pm
Tab could not compete with Diet Rite when it came to a nasty drink. If Tab tasted like metal, Diet Rite tasted like stale, flat, warmed up and re-cooled metal.
2.2.2006 9:55pm
llamasex (mail) (www):
What's the difference between Diet Coke and Tab?

Dear Cecil:

I'd like to know the difference between Diet Coke and Tab. I always thought Tab was diet Coca-Cola. What are these guys trying to pull, anyway? —Swill Swallower in Santa Monica, California

P.S.: I love your column. Better than the World Book.

Cecil replies:

Better than the World Book? That's like telling me I'm better in bed than Don Knotts. I'll thank you to come up with a slightly more pungent comparison, if you don't mind.

For practical purposes the difference between Tab and Diet Coke is that they come in different-colored cans. While the two products are somewhat different in taste (Diet Coke is marginally more palatable, to my way of thinking), both are basically low-calorie colas. They are also, needless to say, both made by the Coca-Cola company. We thus have the spectacle of a multi-billion-dollar corporation selling two virtually identical products that in effect compete with each other. A monumental blunder, you say? Not according to Coke. What we're dealing with here, you see, is the twilight science of marketing, where the normal rules of common sense are out the window.

Permit me to explain. Most consumer products companies make use of a dubious practice known as "line extension," in which you take a successful brand and spin off innumerable variations—so that Budweiser, for example, begets Bud Light. The idea, naturally, is that you achieve instant recognition in the marketplace without having to go to the trouble of developing a new brand identity. Until recently, however, the Coca-Cola company refused to play the line-extension game, on the unassailable grounds that slapping the name "Coke" on some rank-tasting diet drink would only serve to muck up the brand's enviable image. That's why Coke decided to develop an entirely separate brand, Tab, when it got into the diet cola biz years ago.

Unfortunately, a new generation of managers took over at Coke and with the rashness of youth decided to abandon the noble policies of their forebears. Partly this was because archrival Pepsi was enjoying considerable success with its own line extensions, such as Diet Pepsi and Pepsi Free, and partly because Coke wanted to broaden the diet-beverage market, which up till then had been predominantly female. Women drank 60 percent of all diet soft drinks, and the percentage for Tab was even higher. In view of the fact that Tab advertising at the time consisted largely of shots of pretty girls in bikinis, that's not surprising, and one would have thought an obvious solution to the problem would have been to start putting some guys in the ads. But Coke execs evidently thought that was too easy. Instead they spent $50 million to introduce a "new" product in July 1982 called Diet Coke, with the announced intention of attracting a 50-50 male-female consumer mix. The diff twixt Diet Coke and Tab? According to Advertising Age, "Diet Coke will be promoted as a great-tasting cola that happens to be low in calories, while Tab will continue to be positioned specifically as a low-cal product." A fine distinction, you may think, but that's what marketing is all about.

By June of 1983, Coke honchos were crowing that Diet Coke had surpassed Tab to become the nation's top-selling diet soft drink—which means, if you think about it, that Coca-Cola spent 50 million bucks to shoot its own foot off. Nonetheless, to hear the boys in Atlanta tell it, the whole thing was a smashing success. Only 35 percent of Diet Coke sales were "cannibalized"—that is, consisted of customers who had switched from other Coke products. A 50 percent cannibalization rate had been expected. Moreover, research indicates that many women remain intensely loyal—one might even say addicted—to Tab's bizarre petrochemical taste. So it appears Coke will be selling both products for years to come.


Link From the smartest man in the world
2.2.2006 10:13pm
llamasex (mail) (www):
I forgot to put in my comment on the above. From the history I think Coke knows what they are doing.
2.2.2006 10:15pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
I remember Tab. It was nasty, I mean like paint thinner or embalming fluid.
2.3.2006 2:15am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
14 Oct 1983? Wasn't that when Michael Jacksons hair caught on fire while promoting Diet Pepsi??
2.3.2006 6:36am
Scott Moss (mail) (www):
A key feature of the new Tab may be that it has 5 calories, not zero. "Diet" drinks with just a few grams of sugar (10-20) taste much, much better; think of some of the Diet Snapples, or diet soda from a soda fountain with just a little coke or root beer mixed in. My hunch for a while has been that we'll soon see lots of diet sodas with 10-20 calories
2.3.2006 9:23am
Ken Hirsch (mail):
It wasn't saccharin it was the late, lamented, Cyclamate.

That was the first scare, back in 1969. The second was about saccharin, starting in 1977. The FDA wanted to ban it. Consumers revolted, since it was the only artificial sweetener available at the time, so Congress intervened and the FDA ended up just putting a warning label on all products containing saccharin.
Eventually scientific panels recommended removing the warning labels, although not unanimously. Congress intervened again in 2000 and the warning labels came off.

In the mid-1980s, Diet Coke was far surpassing TAB in sales. The company was phasing out saccharin in favor of aspartame in Diet Coke. It didn't change all at once because Nutrasweet was patented then and very expensive. Also, in the first few year, I think that Searle would not have been able to produce enough Nutrasweet even if Coke was willing to pay the price. I remember that on some (fictional) 1980s cop show, there was an episode where they intercepted a smuggled shipment of white powder, which they thought was cocaine, but turned out to be aspartame!

Modern TAB has some aspartame, but also saccharin.
2.3.2006 9:32am
Johnny Hellhole (mail):
I remember as a 12 year old eating bowls of Super Sugar Crisp (the one with the little spaz bear), replacing milk with TaB. Mmmmmmmmmmm, TaB.
2.4.2006 10:45am