Why Crystal Pepsi Was Clear

The fad drink of the 1990s was short-lived for a reason.


A long time ago, way, way back in 1992, in a harbinger of bizarre food trends to come, there entered a unique beverage: Crystal Pepsi. It was fresh, it was different, and most importantly, it was clear. It was also short-lived, disappearing off shelves by the next year.

On Wednesday PepsiCo Inc. announced that it had heard what the fans wanted and would be bringing back Crystal Pepsi to the masses, sold for a “limited time” in Canada beginning July 11 and in the United States on August 8. This isn’t the first time that PepsiCo Inc. has tried to hustle nostalgia; last December, Crystal Pepsi was sold for two furiously ‘90s days.

When Crystal Pepsi was first released with over-the-top fanfare, it was oddly pushed as a product that was “not just Pepsi without the color,” with fewer calories, no caffeine, and “100 percent natural flavors.” At first glance, Crystal Pepsi almost sounded like … a health drink?

In a Crystal Pepsi commercial that would never fly in today’s irony-saturated media landscape, earnestly bold statements like “Right now, nature’s inventing better stuff than science” filled the screen while Van Halen’s “Right Now” cooed “Right now, hey, it’s your tomorrow.”

“Right now artificial doesn’t feel right,” Pepsi sagely advised. “Right now only wildlife needs preservatives.” Right now — at least in the ‘90s — Crystal Pepsi was the drink of the future: more interesting than water, less in-your-face than soda, more futuristic in its simplicity than anything else lining grocery shelves.

Crystal Pepsi was jumping off of a larger fad of ‘90s products that were making the switch to becoming water-like without being water. Mouthwashes, dishwashing liquids, and deodorants all went transparent. The sparkling drink Clearly Canadian was fast becoming hip, Coca-Cola introduced Tab Clear, and even Miller Brewing Company jumped on the trend with Miller Clear beer. These products were capitalizing off a growing sensitivity among consumers who were just now becoming concerned about health and environmental issues. Saving the planet was very on trend. Clarity of a product, the thought went, was a way to communicate pure intentions with its see-throughness: If you could look through it, there couldn’t be anything bad in it, right?

But even then, marketers and researchers were calling bullshit.

“People perceive clear substances to be pure and natural and somehow better,” Roger Blackwell, an Ohio State University professor, told The Los Angeles Times in 1993. “The perception is the beginning of reality, but it is not always the reality.”

Tom Pirko, at the time president of the beverage consulting firm Bevmark, was a bit more blunt in his analysis of why clear was a “thing” to the New York Times in 1992: “It goes back to our primitive brains. If it’s clear you drink it. If it’s cloudy you don’t.”

This actually does have some basis in science. Some studies have concluded that the brain’s first reaction is to interpret dark colors as a sort of mental siren that something is unsafe to eat. Color interferes with our judgment of flavor intensity and general “pleasantness” of the food. People even think different M&Ms taste slightly different, even though that’s blatantly not true.

But we also can learn that color isn’t a big deal. You’re still going to eat that brownie even though it’s, um, brown. And the people of the ‘90s quickly realized that Crystal Pepsi wasn’t even all that much healthier. And a lot of people just wanted to drink something that still tasted — and looked — like Pepsi.

Pepsi’s advertising campaign was also a bit misinformed. Marketing consultant Calvin Hodock writes in his book Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things:

“Another brand equity issue was Crystal Pepsi’s not-so-subtle insinuation that the flagship cola had bad stuff in it. The denigration represented a serious case of brand malpractice. Why risk putting the flagship brand Pepsi in a ‘no-win situation’ by implying that Crystal is perhaps a better alternative?”

Crystal Pepsi didn’t make it past a year and its consumers weren’t really drinking the save-the-planet beverage they wanted (but hey, they were unknowingly avoiding the possibly cancer-inducing caramel color that PepsiCo Inc. only began to take out last year).

That brings us to 2016, where Crystal Pepsi is a wink to a more innocent time. Today’s Crystal Pepsi drinkers are imbibing for the irony and nostalgia, fully aware it’s got zero health benefits. At least this time there’s no false pretense over what you’re drinking.

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