Boxer Mike Tyson is at the center of a new battle between two soft-drink heavyweights, with Coca-Cola claiming that Diet Pepsi’s ads featuring the champion are misleading.
Coca-Cola Co. has asked all three television networks to pull a 30-second commercial showing Tyson telling reporters there was no question who was going to win the big fight, meaning Diet Pepsi beating Diet Coke.
Pepsi’s new advertising campaign built around Tyson says that Diet Pepsi “beat the taste of Diet Coke” in consumer taste tests--but Coke says indignantly that is not true.
“We couldn’t let that claim go unchallenged,” Carlton Curtis, vice president of Coke’s corporate communications, said in a telephone interview from Atlanta.
At stake is a fast-growing part of the massive $40-billion market for soft drinks. While Pepsi has a long way to go to catch up, statistics show its diet cola is gaining market share from its bigger rival.
For the month of April, 1988, Diet Coke and caffeine-free Diet Coke had 10.1% of the soft-drink market share based on supermarket sales, according to Beverage Digest, while Diet Pepsi trailed with 6.9% of the market. Tyson beat Michael Spinks in a 91-second match on June 27 in Atlantic City, N.J. It was one of the most hyped matches in boxing history with Pepsi as the exclusive sponsor.
All three networks said the Coke challenge is under review, a process that could take two to four weeks.
Curtis said that Coke had heard about the planned commercials several days before the first ad broke on June 27, the night of the Tyson-Spinks fight, and protested to all three networks.
“Pepsi still hasn’t produced their research. Their claims are unsubstantiated,” Curtis said.
However, Pepsi said it has plenty of proof.
“Our research is fundamentally sound. It’s based on long understood sampling practices, and we stand behind it,” said Stuart Ross, manager of Pepsi-Cola Co.'s public relations in Purchase, N.Y. Pepsi is a unit of Pepsico Inc.
Ross said Pepsi has submitted statistical information to the networks and in addition has written to Coke suggesting problems with Coke’s testing methods.
Spokesmen for ABC, CBS and NBC confirmed that Coke had asked that the commercials be withdrawn and that a review was under way. That process involves both sides submitting documentation to support their claims.
Meanwhile, the commercials will continue to air, the spokesmen said.
Ross said that Pepsi was not claiming that Diet Pepsi had the dominant market share in the diet cola market, but that its taste tests showed consumers preferred its product.
The Tyson commercial began a network television, radio and print campaign announcing the results of the taste tests, Ross said. According to Beverage Digest, an Old Greenwich, Conn., industry newsletter, Pepsi has spent at least $4.4 million on its new advertising campaign.
On July 1, for example, there was a full-page ad in the New York Times with a picture of Tyson holding a can of Diet Pepsi under the headline “The Undisputed Champions.”
The copy reads, “After a couple of pops in the mouth, it was over. Diet Pepsi had won the title. In head-to-head taste tests, Diet Pepsi decisively beat the taste of Diet Coke.”
Jesse Meyers, editor of Beverage Digest, said the soda business is a $40-billion retail market.
“The diet market is the tail wagging the dog and its going to get waggier,” Meyers said, noting that diet soft drink consumption is growing four to five times faster than for regular sodas.
“There is no question that Diet Coke is by far the leader in the diet market,” Meyers said, “but likewise, Diet Pepsi has put together a very compelling package, including a lot of publicity, a new formulation that their bottlers are extremely pleased with, and a corporate willingness to show ‘we’ve got a big contender here also.’
“Coke is ahead and Coke has been alone . . . now it seems there is another runner on the track. The public is now going to decide. We’ll see the results of this before the year is out.”