THE DATING GAME

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Why is Pepsi-Cola Co. spending $20 million to $30 million to promote a feature most consumers didn't even think about-freshness dating on soft-drink cans? Why even raise the subject? Does the public need to be warned that canned soda will lose flavor over time?

Pepsi says people are in fact becoming more aware of freshness in foods, so maybe Pepsi is catching the wave. Maybe they want to put a little heat on the fast-growing New Age beverages, now being bolstered by a "you are what you eat" idea that perhaps is vulnerable to the "shelf life question."

Also, Pepsi's marketing folks remind us that their top exec, Craig Weatherup, who is featured in three of the new freshness TV spots, did a great job last summer in spots quelling the phony syringe tampering scare. Perhaps, bitten by the celebrity bug, he asked his marketing team to find a new reason to put him in front of the cameras.

But what if this thing spreads? Would freshness dating begin to appear on other shelf-stable items; items that gather dust in pantries, even move from one home to another along with the furniture and dishes? Or to such toiletries as toothpaste and mouthwash? Or shampoo?

What would that do to the discounters and outlet stores that snap up distressed items that are often long in the tooth?

If people start checking everything for freshness dates the way they used to check price labels (in the pre-scanner days), we've got a whole new ballgame. It won't be long before the consumerists demand federal regulation of how long products can be kept on the shelf and "60 Minutes" does an expose of some elementary school principal who is serving out-of-date cola to unsuspecting pupils.

Furthermore, is it wise to spend up to 30 very big ones on a product benefit that the competition can easily neutralize with date stamps of their own?

We liked the old cola wars better, with blind taste tests and killer pricing. They still seem fresh today.

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