why new coke went flat

The New Coke Debacle

In April 1985, just short of its hundredth birthday, the Coca-Cola Company unveiled a sweeter flagship beverage which was dubbed “New Coke.” That change led to a legendary consumer outcry. Americans cherished the former Coca- Cola recipe so much that they stockpiled “Old Coke” in basements and drank it tight-fistedly, drop by precious drop, for two and a half months. Then, 79 days later, the Coca-Cola Company announced that it was going to give in to the astounding consumer demand and bring back the old recipe as “Coca-Cola Classic.”

We Choose to Choose

The New Coke story demonstrates one of the most precious commodities we have, the power to choose. When we are accustomed to our choice of something, even a specific soft drink, and then that choice is taken away from us, we often protest and vehemently object. This was also demonstrated when the United States passed the eighteenth amendment to the constitution, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. That infamous law, known simply as “Prohibition,” resulted in the creation of a successful and vibrant criminal underground of gangsters, such as the notorious Al Capone, who helped Americans choose to drink, and supplied many with contraband liquor. It was no wonder that the United States repealed that law by passing the twenty first amendment, legitimizing alcohol once again.

Miami Vice

Similarly, in 1972, residents of Miami stockpiled a substance that was soon going to become prohibited. They hoarded it, emptied supermarket shelves for the last remnants of it, and imported it from other counties where it was still permitted. This precious commodity was none other than…laundry detergent. Miami – Dade County began prohibiting the sale of detergents containing phosphates, since they are harmful to the environment. Yet, people were accustomed to their detergents and opposed their choice being taken away. That astounding consumer rebellion to their suppression of choice is used in the field of marketing as a fascinating model to illustrate consumer reactions to choice and change.

Drs. Michael Mazis and Robert Settle, of the University of Florida, wrote a paper explaining the consumer response to the detergent law based on a psychological term called reactance, coined in the 1960’s by a psychologist named Jack Brehm. Reactance means that when a choice is allowed and then threatened or removed, it can result in individuals using extreme measures to maintain or to regain that choice.

Reactance, Addictions, and Habit Change

Sometimes, reactance does not impact one’s life that drastically. Although consumers clearly preferred being able to choose their soft drink and soap, their hoarding or protesting did not cause any harm. Yet, reactance also interferes with the efforts of courageous addicts that are valiantly fighting their addictions. Part of the reason that it is so hard for them to change a behavior is because of reactance. Since they had previously chosen to be involved in that behavior, fighting the addiction means terminating that choice. Reactance usually makes the addict fight her own decision to change, no matter how committed she is. Similarly, almost everyone has habits, behaviors, and routines that they would like to change. One of the reasons that it can be very hard to modify them is that we are wired not to give up choice. Reactance can be the nemesis of change.

Reaction to Reactance

What can anyone who wants to make a change, including an addict, do to lessen reactance? Dr. Sheena Iyengar, in her book “The Art of Choosing,” suggests a way to curb reactance, based on experiments conducted in the 1970’s by Dr. Mark Lepper. In Dr. Lepper’s experiments, he took some kindergarten children out of class one by one for a treat. They were shown a selection of six special toys to play with, and they were asked to rate which ones they wanted to play with most, on a scale of 1 -6. For most kids, the victor was a popular toy of that era, Robby Robot. Next, the experimenter told the kids that he was going to leave the room, and then they were allowed to play with any toy, EXCEPT Robby. He restricted some kids with a much stronger wording than others.

A week later, Dr. Lepper invited the kids to play again and allowed each of them to play with all the toys, including Robby. He found that those that were told very sternly not to play with Robby had an intense desire to play with the robot and went right to it. However, the kids that were only told mildly not to play with Robby had little desire to play with it the next week. The kids that noticed that their ability to choose Robbie was boldly and toughly taken away from them experienced strong reactance and ran to play with it as soon as they could. On the other hand, those that heard the warning more softly did not express a desire to play with it altogether, even when they were allowed to.

Choice, Not Force

The implications for addiction treatment, as well as any habit change, are very powerful. Sometimes, the best way to change a behavior is to still view the change as a matter of choice, not something that someone is forced to do. Even though one is moving away from a negative behavior, the more that he or she sees “no choice but to change,”  and sees the old behavior as a vicious adversary, the more reactance she or he will experience, and the harder it will be to leave them habit or addiction. Instead, it is beneficial for the individual to think of the reasons to move away from the addiction or negative behavior and see the benefits he or she gains by stopping it. Then, he or she can make a decision to leave that behavior. This way, one still is making a monumental life change, but choosing to do it, instead of feeling forced to do it. The more one views a behavior as a nemesis that he or she must run away from, the more reactance will rear its head. On the other hand, the more one sees the change as a matter of choice, the less his or her brain will fight the adjustment.

New Coke went that way of Prohibition and laundry detergent with phosphates, but the lesson of all them is clear; reactance is a powerful obstacle to change. So, when the Robbys you have in your world are no longer suitable for you, it is best to choose to adjust with power and grace, not to be difficult on yourself and view the decision as inevitable. Positive change is in your hands. Choose!

About the author 

Steven J. Maybruch

Steven J. Maybruch, LSW, is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety, relationships, and mood disorders. He is the creator of The Circle of Calm Program™, the first wristband/ e-book combination for creating confidence, positivity, and calm in kids and adolescents, and co-founder of The Relationship Couple, LLC.

Brendan Baker is Australia's leading personal development blogger and and helps people build and grow online businesses based on their passions. He has created the Launch Your Life Academy and Your First 1000 Subscribers. Connect with Brendan: Twitter, Facebook, Google+

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