The Teaching Writing Cola Wars

The Teaching Writing Cola Wars

The Writing Hedge’s Brad Kelly looks at what we can learn about teaching writing from the Pepsi Challenge.

In the early 1980s, Pepsi advertising executives came up with a stroke of genius: the Pepsi Challenge. A blind taste test, consumers were presented with two unlabelled cups of cola– one Coke and the other Pepsi.

Despite Coke spending more than $100 million in advertising each year, and dominating supermarket shelf space and vending machines, consumers consistently rated the ‘sweeter’ and ‘rounded’ Pepsi taste over the ‘bitiness’ of Coke 57% of the time.

As Malcolm Gladwell tells the story in Blink, Coke executives were confounded. At first, they cried foul on the Pepsi statistics, but Coke’s own internal testing confirmed the results and they sent their scientists back to tinker with their 100 year old recipe. Pepsi was on the rise and New Coke – a smoother and more rounded cola – was developed to arrest the decline of Coke’s market share.

A sip of judgement

But the Pepsi Challenge demonstrated an important difference between taking a sip and drinking a whole can.

Pepsi’s sweet flavour had skewered the results in favour of those who took a sip, but Coke drinkers who were tempted over to Pepsi (and New Coke drinkers who were forced into the product) found the sweetness too overpowering when drinking a whole can.

The dominance of Pepsi never eventuated (Coca-Cola is still the preferred drink across the globe) and Coke drinkers were furious with New Coke.

Classic Coke returned to the shelves.

Teaching writing can be a bit like the Pepsi Challenge. We can get lured into the sweet promise of the next program or paragraphing structure. We can taste the early success of a vocabulary focus or an adjustment in the language of writing.

But let me tell you something you already know. Teaching writing is about consuming the whole can: it’s about how we feel about writing, locating evidence, developing our understandings, selecting relevant detail, making judgements and building an argument.

It is only then that we can produce the full ‘rounded flavour’ of our ideas in the expression. Until then, we need to work through the ‘bitiness’ of teaching writing.



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