Can’t Beat The Real Thing

Pepsi 'A Taste Of America' commercial, 1989.

Back at the very back end of the eighties, there was a Pepsi advert that showed up in pretty much every commercial break on ITV, and used to drive me up the wall. It involved a teenage ice hockey team – because, of course, we were all supposed to keel over with excitement at the merest hint of anything ‘American’, even if we didn’t have the first idea what it actually involved – being berated by their coach, who was so disappointed in their performance that he forced them to drink an unspecified unbranded cola. “Coach”, protested one subtly-mulleted puck-pursuer, “this isn’t Pepsi!”“It’s all you deserve, Penchansky!” came the yelled reply, provoking an angrily loud-whispered “letsgetbackontheiceguyzzzz” and, what do you know, a performance so impressive that ‘Coach’ relented and gave them proper cola after all.

Even despite this and many, many other similarly irritating and patronising adverts founded on an ignorance so deep and profound it can’t even qualify as misunderstanding of what UK-based putative soft drink-buying youngsters might actually have been interested in, I was – and remain – very much Team Pepsi. The implication of the advert may have been that Penchansky and his Super Furry Animals-inspiring team-mates had been given – uh oh – Coke instead, but let’s be honest about it, you’d almost certainly happily accept Coca-Cola in the absence of your preferred choice and vice versa. So the question remains of what they were actually unwittingly swigging, and, well, there were plenty of thoroughly miserable possibilities to choose from.

Virgin Cola 'The Number's Up' commercial, 1995.

If you wanted to be self-consciously ‘different’ and reject the evil corporate agenda creeping in through the carbonated back door courtesy of Coke and Pepsi, you could always opt for Virgin Cola, bankrolled by a business-straddling multi-millionaire, presented in a ‘suggestive’ bottle nicknamed ‘The Pammy’, and subjected to endless prominent Product Placement gambits in every noted counter-cultural anti-establishment small-scale television show from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Ally McBeal; none of which could detract from the fact that it tasted so unspeakably bland that it swept the board at Lee And Herring’s Mediocrity Awards in the year of its launch. If your parents had one eye on ‘value’ and the other not on anything even remotely resembling flavour, you might well have ended up with something along the lines of the own-brand cola proffered by Happy Shopper-anticipating wholesale concern Nurdin & Peacock, described by Samira Ahmed on Looks Unfamiliar (as you can hear here) as “utterly disgusting”. If you were stuck out in some remote rural-industrial outpost where they didn’t have any time for your fancy city ways – as Andy Lewis was whilst en route to the legendary ‘BALLS TO ENOCH POWELL’ graffiti (which again you can hear more about in Looks Unfamiliar here) – you might well find that everyone around there drank a regional alternative such as Sola Cola, which Andy fondly recalls as “as if someone had phoned through a description of what Coke tasted like”. At the very end of the shelf, there was always the strangely unappealingly-named My Mum’s Cola, which you never actually saw anyone drinking, only as presumably empty discarded cans. Plus there was that one where it had some kind of monster hand reaching around a brick wall on the can or something but even I’m not quite sure what I’m on about there.

All of these poor substitutes for top-drawer Cola, of course, managed to at least momentarily pass themselves off as substitutes on account of at least bearing a passing visual resemblance to the genuine article. Much as the insistence of highbrow hipster types that the output of your local Cafe Ritazza ‘doesn’t taste like coffee’ is dismissable on the basis that it quite evidently does taste like coffee, these also had a resemblance to Coke and Pepsi. It just wasn’t an especially nice one. There was one other alternative, however, that dispensed with any attempt at posing as genuine authentic all-American Coke or Pepsi, and sought to plough its own carbonated furrow in a truly alarming fashion. Historians and anyone who’s read the Fist Of Fun book will be aware of Panda Pops as runner-up to Virgin Cola in the Mediocrity Awards (as it was a little too unpleasant to be truly mediocre) and co-sponsor with Ginsters Pies of the ‘Popularising Badmington’ campaign, and indeed it was for many years duly the drink of choice of the loudmouth ‘blokey’ bloke on the bus who thinks everyone else thinks he’s ‘cool’ and who then left the empty bottle to rattle around under the seats for eternity. There was one small, almost deceptively insignificant detail, however, that marked them out from all of their competitors, ill-advised Max Headroom-assisted ‘New’ Flavour relaunches, rumours about higher ‘stimulant’ content the closer you get to Latin American bottling plants and all. Their cola was green.

This wasn’t just any old green, either. It wasn’t the same hue as Limeade or Correct Cream Soda. It was the kind of virulent, luminescent, irridescent, hazardous-looking green to which ‘bright’ doesn’t really do justice. The kind of green you might find emenating from a glow-stick at a mid-nineties dance club, or throbbing across the face of a poacher they find after an unfortunate encounter with an alien artefact in the opening episode of a Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story. In fact it probably was at least partly marketed towards ravers – if not Pigbin Josh – on account of its flourescent Rozalla-illuminating properties which doubtless came in handy in a converted warehouse at a million o’clock in the morning, but like a dodgy ‘Malcolm’ scored from a shifty friend of a friend who wasn’t really strictly their actual friend in their disconcertingly well-appointed flat early on a Friday evening, nobody really knew for sure what was in it. Did that glow emanate from a trace element of Boric Acid? Had they stumbled across Lord Percy’s thesis on his isolation of Purest Green? Did the Lee Cooper Jeans ‘Don’t Be A Dummy’ Punks give it a quick post-bottling laser blast from their eyes?

Sadly, nobody really knows. Panda Pops ceased trading in 2011 – a turn of events that the tabloids were only too happy to blame on ‘EU busybodies’ and the ‘PC Brigade : (‘ rather than the fact that it wasn’t even quite mediocre enough to be properly mediocre – and any evidence of what found its way into their Green Cola in particular has disappeared down the back of the Internet, so unless there are dealers out there offering phials of ‘Camberwick’ to sugar junkies who are too anti-establishment to allow themselves to be seen anywhere near Coca Cola Vintage, there’s no way of breaking down its contents to find out quite what made it so sense-scorchingly green. For the sake of his teammates, we can only hope that ‘Penchansky’ eventually found a sufficiently motivating alternative.

As for Tesco Dr. Fizz, though…

Coca-Cola 'Can't Beat The Real Thing' commercial, 1988.

Buy A Book!

If you’ve enjoyed this, you can find a lot more like it in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. A coffee, though, not a suboptimal own brand cola. I’m not Penchansky.

Further Reading

If you want to know which carbonated soft drink I personally prefer – clue: it’s not a cola – then have a read of my answers to Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions here.

Further Listening

Samira Ahmed recounted her unhappy encounters with cut-price Coke/Pepsi alternative Nurdin & Peacock Own Brand Cola in Looks Unfamiliar, which you can listen to here. Andy Lewis did his best to describe the even cheaper and even nastier Sola Cola in Looks Unfamiliar, which you can listen to here. If all else failed, there was always the glass-staining horror of Unbranded Soluble Cola Tablets, which Gary Bainbridge shuddered at the memory of in Looks Unfamiliar; listen to it here if you dare.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.