C-C-Catch What Wave?

the Max Headroom chronicles


The Public History of a Campaign That Failed

(With apologies to Mark Twain...)

After the US television series, Max Headroom may be most widely known as the spokeshead for Coca-Cola's second "New Coke" advertising campaign, the one with the slogan "Catch the Wave" - or, in Max-speak, C-C-Catch the Wave. TV ads, print ads, posters, t-shirts, buttons, mugs... Max was coking it up everywhere for a time, and the campaign and memorabilia were generally well received.

But New Coke continued to be a failure even after Max's strenuous efforts, and the failure probably contributed to the sharp end of Max's run as icon.

New Coke: A Short History

In 1982, Coca-Cola launched its first diet soda under the flagship name; Diet Coke shot to the top of the popularity charts and remains there today. However, Diet Coke was not merely regular Coke with the sugar replaced by an artificial sweetener - it was a completely reformulated cola with a flavor very close to that of Pepsi. This was a shrewd move by Coke, since Pepsi had been steadily gaining ground on their market share for decades. The new taste clearly appealed to a lot of cola drinkers and was not judged harshly because no one really expected a "diet coke" to taste like, well, Coke.

Three years later, in an attempt to capture yet more of the "sugared cola" market, in which Pepsi was still gaining, Coca-Cola released what they called "reformulated" Coke and what everyone else called "New Coke." It was the same flavor formulation as Diet Coke, only with a sugar sweetener (high fructose corn syrup and sugar).

The debate over New Coke isn't worth rehashing here. However, Coke had made the mistake of messing with an American icon and ignoring tradition and image. Sure, New Coke had flattened the competition in a huge series of taste tests, but in the end, Coca-Cola discovered that a product like Coke is more than taste.

New Coke was announced, with great fanfare, on 23 April 1985. The outcry against it was both immediate and enormous. Less than three months later, on 11 July 1985, Coke announced that the old version, now dubbed "Coke Classic," was returning to the shelves.

[Sidelight 1: The return of Coke was famously given headline billing across the media. ABC had Peter Jennings cut into "General Hospital" to announce the news as a breaking story. The story headlined two networks that evening and was the second story on the third - and on a very "hot" news day on which many major events of real newsworthiness occurred.]

[Sidelight 2: It was claimed then and now that the entire "New Coke" fiasco was a cleverly planned media stunt with two purposes: first, to get loads of free advertising and attention, and second, to permit Coke to switch from cane sugar to corn syrup in the production without anyone noticing by being able to taste the two versions back to back. Both claims are probably bogus; see Snopes for a full discussion and debunking.]

Most people think Coke Classic replaced New Coke, but the new formulation remained in production and on the shelves as plain old Coca-Cola. By 1986, though, (New) Coke had fallen to a 3% market share... and Classic Coke had reached higher sales than (Old) Coke had seen for years! New Coke was finally renamed Coke II in 1990, and continued to be manufactured in Chicago until 2002 (or 2004). It was finally dropped from the US line, but is reportedly still be manufactured and sold in some overseas locations.

So, in horrifying preview, you see that Max Headroom was brought in to try and save a terminally wounded and already-failed product. That he failed in both the short and long run is no surprise.

New Coke, New Face

In trying to sustain their decision to create and sell New Coke, Coca-Cola sought to position the soda for a young market - precisely the market in which they had long been losing ground to Pepsi. They looked for a spokesperson that would appear to this young audience, and came up with... Max.

(As a further example of Coke's continuing schizophrenia over their products, Classic Coke had its own ad campaign, "Red, White and You" that competed in many ways for the same audience.)

The Ad Campaign


Origins & Development


The Commercials


Marketing Collateral


...Good to the Last Drop


Organization, format, design and all original content ©2005-2009 James Gifford