*Note: This article, written by reporter Cheryl Truman, originally appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader and is being republished here with permission.
In these days of faux-sugary diet sodas, TaB has a cult following.
It is a soft drink that comes in a pink can, has a name that cannot logically be explained and tastes like — well, we'll get to that.
Whatever your thoughts on its girly can and its debatable taste, TaB cola has managed a following that has not only endured health scares and an onslaught of competitors, but has attracted a new generation of devotees.
Some say that TaB has a clean, citrus-like taste that cannot be duplicated by the diet colas that have surpassed it in sales. Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi are formulated to imitate the sugary taste of non-diet versions.
Others say that TaB's appeal is that it tastes completely chemical, a relief from the faux-sugary diet sodas that dominate the market.
"It's pretty simple," said Susan Stribling, a spokesman for Coca-Cola North America Group. "There are people out there who love TaB. They have a very special relationship with TaB and are very passionate about their love of the brand. For them there is no substitute for TaB. We guess you could say it has a real cult following."
Photo by: Paige Thomson | Staff HERALD-LEADER
Coca-Cola does not provide sales figures for TaB, although the drink is produced by the Coca-Cola Company and its network of bottling operations, including Kentucky. But Beverage Digest says that while the Coca-Cola Company produced roughly 1.5 billion cases of Coke in the United States in 2011, and 885 million cases of Diet Coke, only three million cases of TaB were made.
"It has pockets of popularity around the country," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. "You see it on shelves in New York and a few other places. It certainly is not a brand you would find in most stores in the U.S. It has a small but devoted following. Coke is right to keep it available."
Is it any wonder that TaB is finding a new generation of fans far from those it originally targeted — weight-conscious young women in the 1970s who were intimidated by a young Elle McPherson striding confidently through its signature bikini-themed television commercial?
Introduced in 1963 to a market that only had Diet Rite cola in the low-calorie segment, TaB — celebrating its 50th birthday this year — was allegedly named by sifting through a computer-generated list of names. It was marketed to women through commercials that urged them to be a "mind-sticker" to their men by drinking TaB and staying slim.
Margot Kidder, then popular because of her appearance as Lois Lane in the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve in the '70s and '80s, pitched the drink sporting full blow-out '80s hair.
A sketch from Saturday Night Live in 1983 features Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn bonding over cocktails of vodka and TaB.
Marty McFly, the hero in 1985's Back to the Future, orders a TaB in one scene. In fact, watching the Michael J. Fox movie was when Henry Clay High School student Max Morris first heard of TaB.
"After that, I made it my mission to seek it out," he said. "... Once I started drinking it, I actually liked the taste. Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi I find to be overwhelmingly sweet. A lot of people say it has a chemical-y aftertaste. Something about the chemical taste I actually enjoy."
TaB's image was tarnished by a study, later discredited, that linked its sweetener, sodium saccharin, with cancer in lab mice. But the real blow to its popularity was the introduction of Diet Coke in 1982.
That should have been the end of TaB.
But even the soft drink industry has its cult drinks, not the regional favorites, such as Ale 8 One or Cheerwine or Ski, but national drinks that are so far out they're back in.
Now TaB is appealing to a whole new generation of soda drinkers who, like Morris, find its nostalgic tart taste appealing.
Michelle McDonald of Carlisle wrote in an email: "I am not a coffee drinker so it is my morning caffeine." She goes on to relate her peek into TaB heaven. During a KET auction years ago, her father was the high bidder for a year's worth of Coca-Cola products donated by the Lexington distributors.
"Yes, we had 52 cases of TaB in our basement that spring," she wrote. "But I can tell you, it did not last us a year!"
Maura Ruane of Lexington drinks only TaB and tea. Years ago, Ruane, who downs one to two TaBs a day, banded with a friend to urge the Coca-Cola company in Louisville to re-allocate funds for TaB marketing.
Like Ruane, Charing Kelsey of Lexington has heard the routine, be it from cashier or colleague: "TaB? I didn't know they still made that."
Kelsey, who drinks at least three cans of TaB a day, said she enjoys a diet beverage with a taste that isn't trying to mimic sugar.
"It definitely has an aftertaste," Kelsey said. "With all the sodas out there right now, it would be the most chemical-tasting, but that's my favorite. It just is."
Leigh Lizer has a ritual built around TaB. She drinks her morning coffee and eats an apple, then pops open her first TaB of the day.
"I can't live without it," said Lizer, a Winchester hairdresser. "I have Kroger keep four cases in the back for me at all times. I sneak them into movies, restaurants. I carry them in the grocery store. I'm never without it."
While working, she'll drink between six and eight cans a day, she said.
And she finds the fondness of some men for TaB is a welcome trend: "They're man enough to say, 'This is a pink can, who cares?' It shows how much we've evolved."
More on Journey
- A Sweet Celebration: TaB Commemorates Golden Anniversary on Valentine's Day
- TaB Cupcakes
- Coca-Cola Zero Reformulates to Encourage No Sugar Consumption
- The Story of Frank O'Hara's ‘Having a Coke With You’ Poem
- A Slice of Coca-Cola History: Beloved Kentucky Bottling Plant Reborn as Mellow Mushroom Pizzeria