All it took was a single photo posted by Elon Musk and now Diet Coke is making headlines, again.
“Elon Musk and the hardcore cult of Diet Coke,” the Washington Post article proclaimed just after the billionaire businessman shared a snapshot of his bedside table, which included items such as two replica guns, a Buddhist amulet, and four open cans of caffeine-free Diet Coke.
The article goes on to point out other shunned celebrities who enjoy the same beverage, including former president Donald Trump and disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Besides the supposed nefarious associations, the Post paints Coke’s calorie-free version as being unhealthy and addictive.
The history of the brand’s best-selling, yet riskiest product debut is just as fascinating as the tale of Musk buying Twitter.
The original fizzy beverage, Coca-Cola, was created in 1886 by Atlanta pharmacist John S. Pemberton, per Britannica. His bookkeeper Frank Robinson was responsible for naming the drink and coming up with the telltale font style.
Pemberton marketed his new drink as being beneficial for treating many common ailments. At the time, the recipe included cocaine from the coca leaf along with caffeine. The cocaine was taken out around 1903. Even without the stimulant, Coca-Cola became a huge success.
Coca-Cola went strong for decades before the arrival of a new phenomenon in the product line: Diet Coke. It was introduced to the market in 1982 following lackluster sales of Tab soda, which was introduced in 1962 as the company’s version of a calorie-conscious beverage. The slogan, “keeping a tab on your weight” just wasn’t catchy enough and did not reap the benefits of the mighty Coke brand name.
That’s when diet Coke premiered, with pizazz, in 1982. The formulation resulted in a new, smoother flavor that used less phosphoric acid, according to the Smithsonian.
This diet version was sold using the tagline, “Just for the taste of it, Diet Coke!” All along the Coca-Cola corporation suspected that Diet Coke would cannibalize their Tab sales, but they were so keen on breaking into the diet market with this new product that they took the risk anyway.
Marketers intentionally used a lowercase “d” for the new product, which was the first new beverage to capitalize on the “Coke” name since their flagship product. The company focused on the taste of their new product offering and not on the diet aspect in their initial advertising campaigns, which was another reason for keeping the “d” lowercase and therefore less noticeable.
In no time, Diet Coke outsold Tab. By the end of 1983, Diet Coke became the best-selling diet beverage on the market and the fourth best-selling brand in the overall beverage category, coming in behind Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and 7-Up.
Over the years, Diet Coke exploded in popularity, becoming the second best-selling beverage from 2011 through 2015. Tab was eventually discontinued in 2020.
Critics of Diet Coke had levied a barrage of claims against the brand, saying it falsely masquerades as a “healthier” alternative to traditional soda, which is usually made with corn syrup sweetener. Instead, Diet Coke is made with artificial sweetener, which has no calories but is composed of chemicals that critics have deemed problematic.
A 2017 Consumer Reports article presented evidence suggesting that the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas can cause inflammation, which is associated with heart disease. The report also claimed that the sweetness of diet sodas such as Diet Coke may “trick” the brain into craving rich, high-calorie foods, which could lead to weight gain that cancels out any calorie deficit created by drinking a calorie-free product.
A Boston University School of Medicine study from 2017 found that people who claimed to consume at least one can of artificially sweetened soft drink each day were almost three times as likely to have a stroke caused by a blood clot when compared to those who abstained. They were also found three times as likely to be diagnosed with dementia.
But it’s not just ingredients and suspected health risks that the media holds against Diet Coke. While the brand has become synonymous with people seeking to lose weight, it’s also become associated with conservatives thanks to people like Trump and Musk singing its praises on social media and beyond.
As far back as 2013, The Atlantic zeroed in on conservatives as having an affinity for Diet Coke. The article cited a poll that showed Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to prefer the drink, which the writer claimed was at odds with GOP opposition to taxes on sugary soft drinks. More recently, the Washington Post claimed the drink has a cult following that includes former President Trump and Twitter and Tesla boss Elon Musk, who is currently the object of liberals’ ire.
A 2017 report from the New York Times claimed that Trump drank as many as 12 cans of Diet Coke per day. And Musk’s most recent photo wasn’t the first time he waxed poetic over the fizzy drink favorite. In April, the Tesla founder quipped, “Next I’m buying Coca-Cola to put the cocaine back in.”
While cocaine would be an interesting addition, Musk had previously explained why he swapped out regular Diet Coke for the caffeine free version. During a 2007 interview with Inc. magazine, Musk said that guzzling up to eight cans of Diet Coke per day plus having multiple cups of coffee eventually got to be too much.
“I got so freaking jacked that I seriously started to feel like I was losing my peripheral vision,” he told the publication. “Now, the office has caffeine-free Diet Coke.”
But it’s not only conservatives buying up all that Diet Coke. Microsoft founder Bill Gates was rumored to enjoy the beverage with his fast food lunch order and also allegedly requested that his hotel rooms be stocked with a fridge full of Diet Coke.
Former president Bill Clinton was also an avid Diet Coke enthusiast. Clinton even included a signature silver can in a time capsule that’s buried at his official presidential library, per CNN.
And that’s not all. Clinton’s former lover Monica Lewinsky claimed in her memoir, “Monica’s Story,” that Diet Coke played a key role in the affair that eventually led to “Slick Willy” being impeached.
“We were always concerned about appearances,” Lewinsky shared of what happened after sexual encounters. “I would always leave with a Diet Coke; it looked a little more friendly and less sexual.”
As much as mainstream outlets try to connect Diet Coke with conservatives, the fact remains that this calorie-free concoction is unbound by politics — or morals.