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New Coke is the weirdest pop culture throwback in Stranger Things 3

Sweeter, bolder ... better?

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A young man drinks a can of New Coke while a young woman gives him a Look in the background. Netflix

Stranger Things 3 is extremely indulgent in several respects: there’s gratuitous gore, gratuitous romantic tension, and gratuitous ... Coca-Cola product placement.

Specifically, a throwback product: New Coke. The formula change was originally launched in 1985 (the year in which Stranger Things 3 takes place) to mixed results. Today, the drink is considered to be a major marketing failure on the part of the Coca-Cola Company, and in turn, the product hasn’t been available for purchase for years.

Tapped into the 1980s pop culture space, Stranger Things 3 devotes a surprisingly significant amount of time to New Coke, whether it’s poking fun at the concept or using it as a throwback to previous events in the series. For those of us who weren’t cognizant enough in 1985 to “enjoy” New Coke, the cultural significance product will likely remain a bit of a mystery. Here’s the backstory, and how Stranger Things’ uses the drink to take a big gulp of pop nostalgia.

What is New Coke?

New Coke was a spin on the original Coca-Cola formula that was intended to pull the company out of a slump. In the heat of the beverage wars, the Coca-Cola Company was desperate: facing market losses in the face of rising Pepsi-Cola sales, the corporation was basically staying afloat by virtue of “pouring rights” agreements which ensured that Coke would be the only soda sold at particular venues or vending machines.

In a bid to get a leg up on Pepsi, Coca-Cola senior executives commissioned a project internally titled, “Project Kansas” after a widely-circulated promotional image of journalist William Allen White drinking a can of Coke. After testing the new flavor in focus groups, the result was surprisingly positive: many said that they enjoyed the new flavor (although it’d take some getting used to) while 10 to 12 percent absolutely hated it, saying that they may never buy Coke again should the formula change go through.

The product launched on April 23, 1985, and was met with moderate success — Coke sales increased eight percent from the same sales period the previous year, and response was positive from the general public. What went so horribly wrong? The deep South, basically.

Despite generally positive reception, a small but extremely vocal group of objectors — many of whom were from the Southeast United States — considered Coca-Cola to be a vital part of their regional identity and felt alienated by the new formula. The company was inundated with phone calls and letters complaining about the change, and eventually even hired a psychiatrist to listen in on calls. The psychiatrist described the way that certain individuals talked about New Coke as similar to how they would discuss the death of a family member.

Seventy-nine days after New Coke’s launch, the company announced that it would begin to produce the original formula once again. By the end of 1985, Classic Coca-Cola was outselling both New Coke and Pepsi. New Coke continued to be sold, and was eventually renamed “Coke II” in 1992. The product gradually left shelves until it was finally discontinued in 2002.

Despite the fact that New Coke was an overwhelming marketing failure, many suspect that the entire affair strengthened Coca-Cola’s original brand and further cemented its position within the broader American zeitgeist, particularly in its competition against Pepsi.

What role does New Coke play in Stranger Things 3?

New Coke pops up in Stranger Things 3 with mildly critical purpose, but also to woo viewers into picking up the notorious drink. Coca-Cola partnered with Netflix to resell New Coke in a “New Coke and Stranger Things 1985 Limited Edition Collector’s Pack.” It’s just two cans of New Coke and two bottles of Coke Coke and Coke Zero with Stranger Things labels, but yes, it’s back.

In episode 1, Karen Wheeler primly sips it out of a straw next to the pool while waiting for Billy, the hot lifeguard all of the Pool Moms are thirsting over. It’s nothing particularly consequential, but it does complement the striking atmosphere set by her elaborately curled hair, neon blue and purple eyeshadow, two tone swimsuit, and chunky necklace.

[Ed. note: The rest of this article contains spoilers for Stranger Things 3.]

A woman with bright blue and purple eyeshadow and curled hair in a swimsuit sits in a pool chair and drinks New Coke out of a straw. Netflix

Later in the season, Lucas and Mike have a heated debate about New Coke during a dangerous moment when they should be talking about pretty much anything else. It’s a prime example of this season’s absolutely off-the-walls comedic timing: while Eleven meditates in front of an open freezer of Eggos, Lucas cracks open a can of New Coke while the gang quietly sits in a circle. Mike disdainfully asks, “How do even drink that?” to which Lucas responds with a comparison. “It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake ... sweeter, bolder, better.” Hot take.

Punctuating the digression are several long, drawn out slurps. It’s incredibly indulgent and painfully funny given that each slurp is interspersed with cuts to Max, Will, Mike, Nancy, and Jonathan’s horrified faces.

The last New Coke appearance is brief, but more poignant than the others. While holed up in the mall, Eleven digs an empty can of New Coke out of the trash and places it on a ledge. Staring intently, she attempts to crush it using her telekinetic powers, but no dice: after the bite from the fleshy Mind Flayer monster, the can doesn’t budge. The sequence flashes back to Eleven’s days in the lab, where she was tasked with — and succeeded at — crushing a can of Coca-Cola using her mind. Through the power of parallel product integration, Stranger Things signals that Eleven’s powers are switched off, at least for the time being.

A young girl with a shaved head sits at a table in front of a crushed can of Coca-Cola.
Image: Netflix
A girl stands in a mall food court staring at a can of New Coke.
... and now.

Is New Coke ... good?

We’re here to solve the biggest mystery of Stranger Things 3. As part of a round of promotion for the new season, Netflix sent Polygon two cans of New Coke. Much like the soda’s initial launch, the results were a mixed bag.

I don’t drink full-sugar Coke on the regular, so my perception may be a bit skewed. After getting a taste of both classic Coke and New Coke, I actually lean slightly towards the New Coke: while slightly sweeter, the taste was less acrid and I feel the same kind of gritty film that inhabits my mouth every time I drink more than a few sips of regular Coke. With a more muted attack and smoother texture, I preferred New Coke, and several others in the office concurred.

Ultimately, however, the implications are relatively meaningless. You can only buy New Coke in the limited-time Stranger Things/Coca-Cola store, which is something I’d only recommend to those whose curiosity will consume them otherwise. However, it is one of the more fun pop culture tie-ins in Stranger Things 3 — even for those for whom the 1980s are only a cultural impression rather than a memory.

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