What Makes Food Cyberpunk? Part 1: The Cola Wars

An important aspect of any lifestyle, even a cyberpunk one, is sustenance. What makes food cyberpunk? There are many ways to answer this question, so Neon Dystopia will be doing a series on the topic to explore this question. This is the first entry in that series. The second entry, What Makes Food Cyberpunk Part 2: Soylent, Everything the Body Needs, can be found here.

Syndicate cover

The war between Coca-Cola and Pepsi personifies many of the ideas presented in cyberpunk and cyberpunk icons like Max Headroom and Aeon Flux have been drafted to fight in this war, which still rages today. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have their origins in pharmacies dating back to the post-civil war era. Since that time, both Coke and Pepsi have risen to the status of megacorporations. This status hasn’t come easy. It has been achieved through advertising, defamation,  subterfuge, and even assassination. The war that wages between these giants calls forth images from the classic cyberpunk game, Syndicate.

A Brief History of the Cola Wars

Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist from Georgia. He was a war veteran who had been injured during the course of the civil war. As a result of this injury he had become addicted to morphine, and in his search for an alternative painkiller he experimented with cocaine and ultimately combined cocaine with the kola nut in a drink that would later become known as Coca-Cola, referencing these ingredients. Pepsi was invented by Caleb Bradham in 1893, nine years after Coca-Cola, and gets its name from the digestive enzyme Pepsin which was in the original formula. Since then, the war between the two has raged since. In the 1900s, Pepsi used the advertising slogan, “Delicious and Healthful,” and marketed itself as a “pure drink,” in response to the controversy that arose around Coke’s inclusion of cocaine in their recipe. It was due to this controversy that Coke eventually dropped the drug from its ingredients.


In the 1930s, Pepsi turned the tide in their favor and finally began to rise out of the shadow of Coke, which up until that point had dominated the market. Although, it is worth mentioning that on three different occasions, Pepsi offered to sell itself to Coke. On each of these occasions, Coke declined to purchase Pepsi. A decision they would be sure to regret decades later.  Coca-Cola was sold in a 6.5-ounce bottle for a nickel at the time and so Pepsi introduced the 12-ounce bottle for a nickel in an attempt to raise their appeal. It worked, doubling their profits. This appeal largely came from the poor population, however, introducing a level of classism into the Cola Wars. Coca-Cola came to be viewed as the drink of the sophisticated and successful, whereas Pepsi became the drink of the working class. Some people would go so far as to pour Pepsi into the smaller Coke bottles and serve it with the hopes no one would notice, in a kind premonition of the coming of Pepsi Challenge in the in the 1970s.

In the 1940s, Pepsi gained further traction by targeting a heavily underserved population, African Americans. This helped to widen the classist divide that already existed. Pepsi was viewed as the poor people’s drink, and now this included people of colour. At this time in American history, segregation and racism were still common. Ironically in the year 2000, Coca-Cola was forced to pay $192.5 million dollar settlement in a class-action racial discrimination suit. Pepsi received threats from groups like the KKK, but it paid off by the 1950s when African American consumers were more than 3 times more likely to purchase a Pepsi than a Coke. This class divide is a common theme in cyberpunk, even more so since the Occupy protests in 2011 and the growing class consciousness globally.


akira street protest

It was during this decade too, that Coca-Cola continued to operate a branch in Nazi Germany. In fact, the popular soda Fanta was invented in reaction to the trade embargo which prevented the import of the Coca-Cola syrup. Max Kieth, the head of Coca-Cola Deutschland at the time, was quoted as saying Fanta was made from the “leftovers of leftovers,” because they had to create a drink with such limited resources. Coke, however, is not the only one to work with oppressive regimes. Pepsi cornered the market in Russia in the ’70s by striking an exclusive contract with the Soviet Union.

It was at the tail end of the 1970s that Pepsi introduced the “Pepsi Challenge.” This famously brought the cola wars in the average citizen’s awareness. The Pepsi Challenge was a filmed blind taste test between Coke and Pepsi where consumers were asked their preference. Pepsi would turn the positive results into commercials and defame Coke as the inferior tasting drink. Coca-Cola replicated these results in their own offices and found that in a blind test more than 50 percent of their own employees preferred the taste of Pepsi. This set off the biggest marketing blunder that Coke ever committed. The invention of New Coke.

The Rise and Fall of New Coke

In 1985, after facing a decade under the “Pepsi Challenge,” Coke decided to fight back. After internal taste testing of a new formulation of Coca-Cola, known as New Coke, resulted in Coke winning over Pepsi in blind tests, Coca-Cola launched New Coke with a campaign to turn the Pepsi Challenge on its head. They claimed that people preferred the flavor of New Coke over that of Pepsi. At the forefront of this campaign was the 80s icon, Max Headroom. The series Max Headroom ran for 2 seasons in the US between 1987 and 1988, but it was based on a TV pilot aired in the UK in 1985, the year that New Coke was introduced. The character also appeared in a talk show called The Max Headroom Show. With his popularity in 1985, Coke thought he was the ideal choice to be the spokesperson for New Coke.

What Coca-Cola didn’t count on, was that although people preferred the sweeter New Coke in small quantities they didn’t want to finish a whole can. This coupled with the fact that the old Coke had become a symbol of Americanism for a large portion of the population led to Coca-Cola pulling New Coke after just three months and reintroducing the old formula as Coca-Cola Classic. Many believed that this stunt had been a brilliant marketing ploy, and Coca-Cola didn’t rush to correct them.

Ironically, the first episode of Max Headroom is about abusive advertising and then he was turned around to become an adverting icon. The above video is from 1985, but there are some from 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, and some I couldn’t find a date for here, here, and here. Needless to say, there were a lot of Max Headroom commercials where he sells New Coke and many where he disparages Pepsi. “Don’t say the ‘P’ word,” to quote Max.


max headroom coke don't say the p word

That of course, didn’t stop Pepsi from using some cyberpunk icons of their own to sell the ‘P’ Word. The Pepsi Generation was a marketing campaign that started in the 1960s. Its goal was to market Pepsi as the new hip, youth drink, whereas Coke was their parents drink. In the 1980s during the height of cyberpunk movies and the Cola Wars, Pepsi ran a Pepsi Generation commercial which featured the Xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Further Appropriation of Cyberpunk Icons

This appropriation of cyberpunk media didn’t stop there of course. The well-known actors Cindy Crawford and Malcom McDowell (also well known among cyberpunk for his role in The Clockwork Orange) took on the roles of Aeon Flux and Trevor Goodchild in a Diet Pepsi commercial for Superbowl XXX in 1996, following Aeon Flux’s rise in the 90s on MTV’s Liquid Television. Coca-Cola also ran a Matrix advertisement for Powerade (Powerade is owned by Coke), a Tron Legacy commercial for Coke Zero and original cyberpunk rollerblader advert directed by David Fincher (best known in cyberpunk circles for Alien 3 and American The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). I wonder when roller blading and cyberpunk were married? Hackers perhaps?

Coca Cola and Pepsi Are Mega-Corporations

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are, at the end of the day, corporations; they are driven by no higher ideal than profit. Pepsi, for instance, has become one of the largest producers of snack foods. Examples of this are famous chip brands like Lays and Doritos. Ever wonder why Doritos and Mountain Dew are always paired? Well, Mountain Dew is also made by Pepsi. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, has been caught in some pretty questionable activities, significantly more so than Pepsi. In 2001, Coca-Cola was taken to trial by the United Steelworkers union on the behalf of Sinaltrainal, a Columbian union representing workers in a Coca-Cola Bottling Plant. They were accused of hiring Columbian Death Squads to assassinate Union members for advocating for fair and better treatment.

More recently, Coca-Cola has come under fire, alongside Nestle, for worsening the drought in California by depleting aquifers and ground water to fill bottled water. Please note that Pepsi is also on that list, although they are taking less of the heat. In India too, Coke is having plants shut down for bottling too much water. That makes this 1988 Max Headroom New Coke commercial awfully ironic:

Any of these real life events could be the plot of a cyberpunk story.

Honorable Mention: Jolt Cola

To jump off the Coke vs. Pepsi train, there is also Jolt Cola. Jolt doesn’t have the evil megacorp cred that Coke and Pepsi have, but it managed to find its way into the cult film Hackers. It also made an appearance on the cover of the Hacker card game by Steve Jackson Games, probably because of being featured in the Hackers movie. I actually really liked Jolt, but I haven’t seen it in years. The company went bankrupt in 2009 and was bought out. Up until late 2015, Bevmo carried Jolt in several flavors as a novelty drink. When I discovered this I contacted all the Bevmos in my area. The only thing they had left was Diet Jolt. Traveling to three different Bevmos, I acquired 21 bottles of Diet Jolt and now have all the Jolt left within the Greater Sacramento area. It’s not as good as the original Jolt with the full sugar, but it has that distinct Jolt Cola flavor I love.

We declare Cola the most cyberpunk of beverages. Coke probably has the most cred as a cyberpunk drink but is also a mega-corporation vying for this title with Pepsi. We didn’t even get into product placement in cyberpunk films like Blade Runner (Spoiler: Coca-Cola bought product placement in Blade Runner).  Of course, there is always the punk option which would be supporting smaller Cola companies or learning to make your own. Drink up, fellow cyberpunks.


Many of the facts stated in this article were taken from the documentary, Coke vs Pepsi – A Duel Between Giants.

For the second part in this series, Soylent: Everything the Body Needs, click here.

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Veritas is a cyberpunk and writer who enjoys all aspects of the cyberpunk genre and subculture. He also journeys deeply into the recesses of the dissonance exploring his nihilistic existence. If you'd like to contact Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas), the founder and editor-in-chief of Neon Dystopia, you can do so here: ilwheeler.founder@neondystopia.com
  1. True! Omikron’s intro came to mind, it’s quite fitting

  2. Jolt is still being made and sold! You can buy direct or from BevMo. http://www.joltcola.com.au/shop/

    • It seems like Bevmo stopped receiving shipments in my area mid 2015. But there a few left and they will be mine! I’m considering ordering a case from the Aussies though….

    • Contacted all the Bevmos in my area. It seems that Jolt was continued there in mid-2015. The only thing they had left was Diet Jolt. Traveling to three different Bevmos, I acquired 21 bottles of Diet Jolt and now have all the Jolt within the Greater Sacramento area in my possession. It’s not as good as the original Jolt with the full sugar, but it has that distinct Jolt Cola flavor I love.

  3. We never had Jolt over here. I feel like I’m missing out.

    • You’re not. Coke, Pepsi, Bawls, Jolt, Red Bull, Monster. They’re all carbonated, caffeinated sugar waters in fancy disposable cans and bottles that entice you into buying them so you can give a little meaning to your worthless life.

      Save your money, and your soul. Drink clean water. It’ll build up strength for the future ahead.

  4. OpenCola. It was designed as a promotion for some freeware or another, but got to be known for being an “open source” cola… which sounds both prett cyber and pretty punk to me…

  5. To be honest, I really can’t stand cola of any sort. Exception: Energy drinks.


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