22 July 2012

Mr. Squish and the cola wars.

I first discovered the “cola wars”—the insistence that, if you’re gonna have a cola, it must under all circumstances be a Coca-Cola (or a Pepsi, or a Dr. Pepper, or a Tab) when I was a kid. One of my aunts collects Coca-Cola memorabilia, and I think is a shareholder in the company, and whenever we’d have family functions she simply had to have Coke. (One of my other aunts for a time simply had to have coke—with the lowercase c. But that’s another story for another time.)

The cola wars were of course invented by the cola companies themselves. As is any brand-name loyalty campaign: If you own a car it must be a Ford not a Honda, or if you own a computer it must be an Apple not an HP, or if you buy raisin bran it must be Kellogg’s not Post’s. For most of us it makes no difference: Nut-flavored fizzy water is all the same, and I would rather have an iced coffee anyway. For others, if they order a Coke and you bring them a Pepsi, expect an angry reaction and a greatly reduced tip.

Yes, I’m aware that when I was a teenager, I absolutely wouldn’t drink Pepsi. But this wasn’t cola war brand loyalty: I would drink Coke, Dr. Pepper, RC, and Jolt when I could get it. Pepsi made me gag. Have you ever eaten a whole lot of something, and soon after—sometimes for that very reason, sometimes not—you threw up? For some folks, they can never again eat that thing again: The taste memory is too strongly connected with the sense memory. That’s why my brother still won’t eat at Chevy’s. And probably why I won’t eat cilantro. It takes years to wear off. It didn’t wear off for me and Pepsi until my mid-20s.

While I totally understand preferring one cola to one another, I don’t understand the madness that drives people to absolutely shun every other brand. At family functions everything was Coke and Coca-Cola products. I was big on Mountain Dew, but MD is a Pepsi product. Yet for some foolish reason, some folks have figured once they’ve chosen their cola, any other beverages they buy must be manufactured by that parent company. Now, that makes sense if you’re a fast food restaurant, or someplace with vending machines, and your beverage distributor offered you a exclusivity deal in exchange for a nice price. It makes no sense for private individuals. Why can’t you have both Coke and Mountain Dew under the same roof? If they ever come in contact with one another, will a wormhole will open up? Will the fabric of spacetime be ripped asunder? Will John C. Pemberton rise from the grave to feast on the brains of the living?

Of course not. I used to mix Mountain Dew and Coke for fun. In certain proportions it resembles a beer. Fun for freaking out certain adults.

Anyway, after another stupid cola-wars fight, I spit up the following Mr. Squish strip.


Mr. Squish. September 1990.

The objection to Coke bottling in South Africa was ’cause South Africa was still knee-deep in apartheid. American companies, at the time, were heavily encouraged to pull out of that country in protest. Racists don’t deserve Coca-Cola.

Why was Pepsi not “politically correct”? That was an inside joke. (I still needed to learn to not make punchlines out of inside jokes.) My friend Dave was fascinated by the term “politically correct,” which was a rather new saying at the time. Just for fun he’d throw people off by critiquing their decisions: “Dude, no, don’t do that. It isn’t politically correct.” Which would confuse them—exactly how was what they were doing not politically correct? Some people would actually take him seriously and switch their decision. Others would say, “Screw political correctness,” and do what they were already gonna do—and Dave approved, ’cause he was just messing with them anyway.

But Dave was a Coca-Cola partisan, and had convinced himself Pepsi was swill. So whenever someone was about to buy Pepsi, out it came: “Dude, not politically correct.” Triggering, in some cases, a debate about what that meant, or a simple “Oh, piss off,” as the person bought the Pepsi anyway.

The “Tastes great / Less filling” was a fake argument in ’70s and ’80s Miller Lite commercials: Two sportscasters, or two ’roid-raging athletes, or other heavy drinkers like Rodney Dangerfield or Mickey Spillane, would get in a rather heated debate about which attribute of Miller was better. But they never actually came to blows. Which was a shame. I always hoped one day, one day, Billy Martin would smash a beer bottle on the bar and cut George Steinbrenner a new a--hole over it… and a few other, non-beer-related issues.

Nobody caught the irony of Leonard’s “Team Anarchy” shirt. Still one of my favorite jokes.

Well. When you’re 19, you never expect you’ll be blogging about this old comic strip when you’re 41, and have to explain all the topical humor. Nobody warns you how topical humor doesn’t stand the test of time at all. But had someone warned me, I think I would’ve been too stubborn and na├»ve to listen. Most of the stuff I found funny at the time was topical—Saturday Night Live, Murphy Brown, “Bloom County,” “Doonesbury”… so I did what amused me. Still kinda do. But the jokes people still laugh at, are the ones where you don’t have to explain why Coke in South Africa used to be a problem.