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Why Big Soda Is Still Fighting for a Place at the Breakfast Table

The decades-long battle to convince Americans to swap coffee for Coke.

Sean Gallup/Getty Image

"All the sugar and twice the caffeine," was the slogan for Jolt Cola when it first hit the market in 1985. Two years later, the Los Angeles Times would report that Jolt was released "at a time when other beverage makers [were] stressing the nutritional value of their product." All Jolt cared about was whether customers would reach for a can over their customary cups of coffee.

Each can contained a third of the caffeine found in coffee (though twice the average soda at the time) and a hearty 10 teaspoons of sugar. The Center for Science in the Public Interest referred to Jolt as "a legal product that is absolute nutritional junk," according to the LA Times. But people — even self-described "health conscious" Southern Californians — started drinking the stuff.

By the end of the ‘80s, Coke and Pepsi had gotten into the coffee-replacement game. Thirty years later, they’re still fighting.

And so the war for breakfast began.

In the mid-1980s, soda consumption surpassed that of tap water for the first time (it wasn't until the late-‘80s that bottled water started becoming popular — Pepsi and Cola got into the business in the ‘90s), and soda companies started looking for new markets to tackle. Market analysis showed that coffee sales were down. In 1962, nearly 75 percent of the U.S. population were coffee drinkers. By 1988, a gradual decline brought that number down to 50 percent. Because soda occasionally had lemon-lime or other quasi-juice flavors, plenty of energy-making sugar, and a boost of caffeine, getting a piece of the wake-me-up market became a main objective for soda companies — especially the big ones.

By the end of the ‘80s, Coke and Pepsi had gotten into the coffee-replacement game. The latter introduced a new high-caffeine product called Pepsi AM. Coke introduced the BreakMate, which was essentially a mini-vending machine/soda fountain intended to get office workers to reach for soda over coffee. Just for good measure, Coke also rolled out an advertising campaign recommending "Coca-Cola in the morning" to the entire nation.

But today, roughly 30 years and many products later, soda companies are still hoping for a place at the breakfast table.

Getting Americans to drink soda in the morning

Americans have been waking up by sipping hot coffee and a glass of juice (mostly in the form of cider) as far back as the Revolutionary War. Yet many of our breakfast traditions are the product of targeted advertising. Sugar was added to corn flakes to make them appealing to consumers — even though inventor John Harvey Kellogg had invented them as a wellness food. Today's food-coma-inspiring breakfasts are a product of a masterful 1920s PR campaign orchestrated by Edward L. Bernays, often referred to as "the father of public relations." Soda must have hoped that they, too, could be included in the changing idea of breakfast, since advertisements for soda in the morning can be found at least as far back as the 1930s.

But the late ‘80s saw a flurry of "breaking" news that some people really enjoyed drinking soda in the morning. Beverage industry figures put the number of morning soda sales in the late ‘80s at somewhere between 10-12 percent of all sodas sold. Newspapers jumped on the scoop. An 1989 Los Angeles Times article quoted one beverage expert as saying drinking soda in the morning was "a measure of the advanced U.S. culture." The expert continued by explaining that "agrarian societies" drank hot or bitter drinks in the morning. Robert Baskin, a 1988 spokesman for Coca-Cola, similarly told the New York Times that fast-paced society demanded a quicker-to-drink beverage. "A coke is immediate gratification," Baskin said. "It tastes real good going down quick, which isn't true for a hot beverage."

But there was still one issue, pointed out in a few of the articles. Those who didn't drink soda in the morning found the practice aberrant. One man told the Los Angeles Times that his coworkers looked at him "like [he] was from Mars" when he drank soda during morning meetings. Advertisers, then, weren't just tasked with convincing people to reach for a soda after hitting the snooze button, they had to convince the world that drinking soda for breakfast was totally normal, too.

One beverage expert argued that drinking soda for breakfast was "a measure of the advanced U.S. culture."

This is where the media comes in. In his book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, Richard Thaler describes an amazingly successful effort in the UK to shift behavior, in this case, getting people to pay their taxes. The plan? Sending out postcards — with only slightly varied language — informing taxpayers that "nine out of 10 citizens" paid their taxes on time. The most successful read, "Nine out of 10 people in the UK pay their taxes on time. You are currently in the very small minority of people who have not paid us yet."

To some extent, this identification of a group trend (along with the admonishment — implied or not — that your own habits are dated) is exactly what happens when consumers read a number of articles implying that everyone is eating açaí berries, sipping pomegranate juice, or even drinking soda in the morning. It just so happens that companies often have a new product that coincides with these trends: Soda companies of the 1980s certainly did, and they employed similar tactics to make it appear as if soda drinking was a legitimately growing trend. Unfortunately, if consumers don't like the product (or the time of day they're asked to consume it), companies will need more than peer pressure to convince people to buy.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Why isn't everyone drinking soda for breakfast today?

Trend-pieces aside, the products were flops. In 1988, 20,000 BreakMates were installed in offices throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the machine itself did a lot of breaking (Gizmodo recently reported that "the service calls quickly turned the BreakMate from a money-maker to a money pit"). Yet Coca-Cola hung on to the concept until 2010, when it finally stopped selling the machine's syrup tanks. Similarly, Pepsi AM was released in 1989 and pulled from shelves by 1990.

Between 1998 and 2014, per capita soda consumption dropped from 51 to 44 gallons. Yet there are some signs that the soda for breakfast trend continued to grow. Between 1992 and 2007, soda consumption with breakfast eaten outside the home "nearly doubled," according to the Seattle Times. Pepsi released Gatorade AM in 2007, which was meant to replenish drinkers after a hard night's sleep — aka hangover. (Two years later, AM was renamed "Shine On.")

Duane Stanford, editor of industry publication Beverage Digest, says that "it's natural at a time when soft drinks and colas are declining that [soda companies] would want to capitalize on other markets." According to food policy expert and author Dr. Marion Nestle, soda "will try anything to increase sales, and this is one way to do it." Breakfast soft drinks appeal to young men, she says, who just so happen to be "the largest demographic of soft drink customers."

Stanford explains that many products try to grow their market by getting people to think of them "in a different way." One example he gives is the fast-food industry (in which companies like McDonald's have also been experiencing a decline in sales), which has recently been emphasizing breakfast as a way to bring more people in. "People are busy and don't have time to sit down for breakfast," Stanford says. That's an insight that's good for both fast food and soft drinks.

And all was quiet on the soda-for-breakfast front until 2012. That was the year Taco Bell decided to start serving breakfast "First Meal" — namely, meat-and-egg combos wrapped in some kind of tortilla. To differentiate themselves from competitors who only offered coffee and orange juice as beverage options, Taco Bell started serving Mountain Dew A.M. The concoction is a mixture of Mountain Dew and orange juice — thereby making it both original and appealing to the chain's key demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds. It was also likely appealing to Taco Bell's shareholders, since the markup on soda is famously high. Think of it as cutting premium-grade orange juice with cheap soda filler.

Mountain Dew’s successful ‘Kickstart’ contains caffeine and five-percent juice. It’s considered a ‘fruit juice’ under FDA guidelines.

They weren't the only chain to offer soda-for-breakfast promotions, either. Sonic had its "Morning Drink Stop," where beverages were only 99 cents before 10 a.m. Steak 'n Shake offered a "buy a 28-ounce Coke before 11 a.m. and get a breakfast taco free" promotion.

In 2013, Mountain Dew released "Kickstart," a soda made with caffeine, five percent juice, and a sprinkle of vitamins B and C. PepsiCo told the Associated Press that Kickstart, which is available at grocery stores, "is also not a soda, because its five percent juice content qualifies it to be considered a 'juice drink' under guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration." While the FDA does allow anything with less than 100-percent juice to be called a "juice drink," they have no definition for soda.

So far, Kickstart has been wildly successful, with $100 million in sales during its first year (that same year, uber-popular Vita Coco coconut water had $250 million in sales). It wouldn't be farfetched to assume other definitely-not-soda juice drinks could be coming to the breakfast market soon. Stanford notes that Mountain Dew is "one of the few who have bucked the trends of the declining soft drink category."

Cereals, a breakfast food that has been in similar decline, has been trying to convince consumers that it can be a lunch, dinner, or snack food, too. Customers are now free to eat cereal anytime, really, as long as they keep buying it. Perhaps the shifting times to acceptably eat foods is the sign of something larger, the end of a codified three-meal-per-day menu once and for all. If breakfast truly becomes redefined as "the first meal," maybe it doesn't matter if people consume soda, sushi, or nothing at all.