Apple-flavored soda. Lightly carbonated.
The USA in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
As we learned in Wednesday’s post on Chelsea, the controversial Anheuser-Busch soda with a kick, American beverage companies spent much of the late 1970s and early 1980s trying to figure out what to do about yuppies. The newly-moneyed consumers had dollars to spare and a burgeoning desire for foods at the intersection of healthful and sophisticated, which led corporate America to fruit-flavored sodas that didn’t just quench thirst but offered a whole way of life. These included:
Chelsea, with its foil-topped bottles and eye-popping price point (for the elegant lifestyle).
Rondo, a sort of proto-power drink made by Cadbury Schweppes and advertised as “lightly carbonated, so you can slam it down fast” (for the active lifestyle).
Mello Yello, which debuted in 1979 as Coke’s attempt to compete with Mountain Dew, with ads promoting its real juice content (one percent!) and featuring the briefly-ubiquitous character Ernest P. Worrell (for the, uh, overly social but well-meaning neighbor lifestyle? The messaging was definitely muddled).
All of those sodas had a lemon and/or lime flavor (and orange Sunkist also debuted around the same time), but there was one product that took a different, non-citrus path: Aspen, a PepsiCo soda with “just a snap of apple.” The lifestyle that came with it? Elegant and active, in the snow, and on horseback. Behold:
There’s much to discuss here. The horses. The all-white outfits. The hair. The vaguely folksy-yet-sophisticated jingle at the end, like Joni Mitchell singing about soft drinks on a remote mountaintop. There’s also the fact that the pitchman is Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s son, who comes across as a sort of ethereal cowboy-in-training, more mystical and chill than his hard-edged father, who endorsed RC Cola and Camel Cigarettes.
But for me, the highlight of the ad is this:
They’re trying so hard to conjure a sense of sophistication while also subtly reminding you that this drink does not have lemon or lime in it. But because it’s an apple, something you cannot simply squeeze into the glass, the whole thing has an absurdist air, adding a charmingly campy touch to an ad that is so very sincere. That incongruity, I love it.
Anyway, Aspen really does sound delicious, no? It’s like a mass-market Martinelli’s, the sparkling cider that originated in 1843 in Switzerland and is still going strong as a drink with an aura of alcohol-free refinement. But, alas, Aspen didn’t last—PepsiCo discontinued it in 1982.
The precise reasons circumstances of the discontinuation aren’t entirely clear, and PepsiCo didn’t respond to my request for comment (seriously, I contacted them!). But my sense, from my research on the soft drink industry of the era, is that, for whatever reason, consumers simply preferred citrus flavors, and sodas advertised with an air of sophistication just didn’t sell, as was also the case with Chelsea and Rondo, the latter of which was billed as “premium,” and both of which flopped quickly.
Pepsi did take another stab at apple sodas, though, rolling one out in 1984 with its new Slice line, which also included lemon-lime, mandarin orange, and cherry cola flavors. This time, the branding was aimed at the everyday consumer, not the sophisticate, although the sodas were hyped for containing ten percent real juice—not necessarily classier than your standard Pepsis and Cokes, but more healthful. For a few years, that approach worked: Slice’s sales soared to 3.2 percent of the overall soda market in 1987. But by 1988, as the New York Times reported, “Slice, which was originally considered a marketing coup, now seems to be losing its fizz,” and the brand’s market share fell to less than 2 percent a year later. Industry observers, quoted in the Times, speculated that the reason was a simple matter of misunderstanding: consumers didn’t care much whether the flavoring came from juice or from cheaper artificial flavors. In fact, they kinda preferred the artificial flavors.
PepsiCo discontinued Apple Slice in 1988, an early victim of the decline of fruit-flavored sodas from their brief heyday. If you look at today’s offerings from Pepsi and Coke, you’ll see plenty of citrus drinks (the lemon-lime industrial complex is unstoppable) but dig a bit deeper and you’ll see that they do have apple drinks for sale, just without as much hype: under the Pepsi banner, you’ll find an apple-flavored Izze, and Coke has Appletiser. Like Aspen, they’re advertised with a certain vibe of fanciness (Izze promises “Bubbly refreshment with an authentic flavor”), a contrast to that mass-market citrus stuff, although neither brand seems to have considered the possibility of putting an apple slice on the rim of a glass or offering up the endorsement of an ethereal cowboy-in-training. Perhaps that’s yet to come.
Here, by the way, is another Aspen ad for your enjoyment:
Get it here
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