Pepsi Blue

Soda Pop Blues: A Nostalgic Ode to Pepsi Blue

Welcome to Meet the Founding Fathers, a series of articles in which the creators of Council of Zoom introduce themselves to the world. Up next is Nat Brehmer, one of our senior writers and lover of puppets. Read on as he discusses his love of Pepsi Blue.

They say love is a chemical reaction. So, too, is a good soda. You’ve got every kind of corn syrup, dyes, phosphoric acid, indiscernible chemicals and the percentage of water is the only thing you should have put in your body in the first place. It’s not a perfect metaphor and it’s true of every soda we ever grew up loving, but for some reason it just feels especially true for Pepsi Blue. More than any other caffeinated bubble sludge stocked in the front of convenience stores the world over, Pepsi Blue looks the least like something that was designed to be ingested. And yet, it is truly one of the great nostalgic death drink loves of my life. It didn’t last long, but for that brief time, I cherished it. It was 2002 and despite my acne and hellish middle school struggles, I was on top of the world. Doritos had discovered the third dimension, Spider-Man had swung his way onto the big screen, and Avril Lavigne had just released her debut album, Let Go. 

I was also a lover of all things blue flavored. And that’s not a typo, nor is it synesthesia. Blue has been a mainstay flavor of junk food and drink for years and continues to be so to this day. As a kid, it was simply the flavor I liked best, usually under the “Blue Raspberry” moniker (but not always) partially because of the taste and partly because it was my favorite color. As an adult, it just absolutely fascinates me. The whole system of chemically flavoring junk foods is wild, but Blue Raspberry in particular is just stunning to think about. Let me try to explain. First of all, absolutely no fruit flavored candy or soda tastes like the thing it’s based on. Orange comes the closest, and it’s not exactly close. Strawberry flavored things don’t taste like strawberry at all. Neither does cherry. These things are more dependent on color than anything else, and as long as they can evoke the same base reaction as the source fruit (largely sweet or sour) then it’s good enough. Under no other color, and I mean the general traditional fruit flavors you see, is the chemical flavoring associated with an invented flavor rather than an actual fruit. That is only true for blue raspberry. Why? It’s not like they didn’t have a corresponding fruit for that color. The blueberry is right there. And sure, it wouldn’t taste remotely similar, but that’s the norm. And, as mentioned, some things aren’t blue raspberry flavored. They’re just blue. And it’s a different flavor than blue raspberry, sometimes labeled as some sort of fruit punch, sometimes just… blue. 

Regardless of its confounding origins, blue was on top of the world in the early 2000s. We were still on the heels of the Eiffel 65 song. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer mentioned on her own show that very year, “Gatorade has a new flavor: Blue.” If the slayer herself notes that blue has simply become its own flavor, then we truly should all get on board. Gatorade, for sure, made great strides for blue drinks everywhere and it wasn’t long before companies clearly started asking, “How do we carbonate this?” Amazingly, the first of them to try it was Jolt Cola. Finally ahead of the curve rather than ten to fifteen years behind it, Jolt introduced an incredibly intimidating soda called Jolt Blue CX2, which came in a can designed to look like a battery as if that was a selling point. 

Pepsi picked up the ball and kept it rolling from there, though the decision to create Pepsi Blue was much less formed out of a need to outdo the competition than it was to recapture their own in-house success. The previous year had seen the release of Mountain Dew Code Red, which caught on like wildfire. There was a need for the main Pepsi brand to have a Code Red of its own, so Pepsi Blue was initially designed to recreate the pop culture moment that Code Red had been. Given that one of those things is still around and hugely successful in 2020 and the other is Pepsi Blue, it went about as well as you’d expect.

That was coupled with the fact that market testing had somehow determined that teenagers were more attracted to bright colors, which might explain not only the beverage choices of 2002, but clothing and hair styles as well. Believing that not enough teenagers were buying the drink, Pepsi Blue was at least partially designed with the purpose of catering directly to an audience that had already been largely claimed by Smirnoff. Pepsi took nine months of rigorous taste testing to land on the nondescript berry flavor, and the company seemed incredibly confident in the new product. So confident, in fact, that PepsiCO CEO Gary Rodkin said, “Pepsi Blue has the potential to reinvigorate the cola category.” That is not, obviously, what happened.

Still, Pepsi Blue felt like it was going to be a very big deal. The company, as you would expect with anything new they released, promoted the hell out of it. Sev and Papa Roach both did commercials advertising the new flavor. Pepsi Blue made big screen appearances in both The Italian Job and Garfield: The Movie. But all of that means nothing compared to the one, true seal of Pepsi pop culture approval: a Britney Spears commercial. Britney and Pepsi were absolutely entwined back in the day, she was the company’s biggest spokesperson and was the heart and soul of pop culture itself. Britney signing off on the new soda in a commercial should have rallied the entire world. It didn’t. 

I was twelve and blissfully unaware of that. It was love at first sight the first time I ever laid eyes on Pepsi Blue, let alone the first time I tasted it. As an adult going off of a twenty year old memory, it’s hard to describe the taste of Pepsi Blue to someone who never had the chance to experience it. The official flavor is “berry.” It doesn’t taste anything like berries, but then most berry-flavored things don’t. Many people have likened the flavor to cotton candy, but I never got that at all. To me, if anything, it tasted a lot like the blue Kool Aid, but carbonated. It packed a stronger punch, and I was happy to let it punch me every chance I got. Pepsi Blue carried me through that summer. Fishing trips with my dad, hanging out with friends. Picking up pizza and taking a trip to Movie Gallery? Don’t forget to grab a Pepsi Blue. I drank it all the time and gleefully felt a year slip from my life with every swig. 

So why didn’t it last? 

There are a couple of reasons. One contributing factor was, literally, staring everyone in the face: the very thing that made it blue. Pepsi Blue used the coloring agent Blue-1, which was highly controversial and, in fact, already banned in several countries at the time. Better known by the terrific nickname Brilliant Blue, it was known for a tendency to create colorful feces and occasionally find its way directly into the bloodstream. Having said that, Brilliant Blue is nontoxic and was only a small contributing factor, if anything. More than anything, Pepsi Blue was cancelled because nobody seemed to love it as much as I seemed to. It did not win over teenagers, to the surprise of no one but the brand itself. 

This was another loss that Pepsi sustained to Coca Cola as well. That company introduced a new product at almost the exact same time, with theirs being Vanilla Coke. Whereas Pepsi Blue was gone by 2004, Vanilla Coke, which was like regular Coke but with a quicker shortcut to diabetes, remains a permanent fixture to this day. From a pop culture standpoint, as well as a sales perspective, Pepsi Blue kind of came and went. Mass markets didn’t seem interested in Pepsi that looked like Drano. People made it clear they they preferred their cola black as tar. Not that the original Pepsi had gone anywhere during this time, but people made their preferences obvious, picking the original almost every time. For kids like me, it was a great product gone too soon, and one I clearly have no small amount of nostalgia for. 

With that in mind, one has to wonder about the possibility of a comeback. I know people talk about it sometimes on those vintage snack food corners of the Internet. After all, it feels possible. We live in a world that has seen not only one, but multiple comebacks for Crystal Pepsi. That decision was made solely by nostalgia, but nostalgia is a major consumer factor these days and a lot of companies are giving into it, for better or worse. This year finally sees the return of Dunkaroos, a triumph for ‘90s kids everywhere. And yet, I don’t see it happening. We’re nearly twenty years out from the introduction of Pepsi Blue, but maybe that’s still not enough time. While there’s nostalgia there, for sure, I’m not sure there’s enough of it to warrant a resurgence. It’s not nearly as infamous as Crystal Pepsi had been prior to its return. Having said that, Pepsi Blue hasn’t even completely disappeared from the globe. 

In 2002, Pepsi Blue was introduced for the Philippines for a limited time whereas it appeared to be a mainstay in many other countries. In an ironic twist of fate, they were so taken by it that they made it a permanent fixture and the Philippines is now one of only two countries where Pepsi Blue remains to this day, with the other being Indonesia. I’m not sure if it’s anything similar to the original flavor or is in-name only, I’d guess the latter, but I don’t see it making a return anywhere else in the world for a long time. I’m not sure if Pepsi Blue will ever make its comeback, but that’s the thing about nostalgia. Things often feel far more important than they ever actually were when all you’re left with is the sweet, tongue-stinging, blue dyed memory.  

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