September 18, 2017

What Pepsi Cola Can Teach You About Sex and Gender

Pepsi Max promises max masculinity, here symbolized by
three phallic bottles.
Pepsi Max is dying, and Coca Cola Zero is disappearing from our shelves. What is happening in the Cola world and what does it mean for sex, gender and the understanding of transgender lives?

The first time I heard about Pepsi Max was back in 1993. I saw some ads promising "Maximum Taste. No sugar." I remember my first reaction was: Why on earth would someone drink a cola drink that is not sweet?

When I did taste it, in France I believe, I realized it was just another no-calorie soft drink with an artificial sweetener.

It tasted more or less the same as Pepsi Light (Diet Pepsi for Anglo Saxon readers). For all practical purposes it seemed PepsiCo had launched the same drink with a different label.

Defined by the symbols, not the content

I was wrong. The drink might have been the same on the inside, but it was very different on the outside. The cans and bottles  were black, they were masculine and they had the word MAX written on them in glowing, testosterone-boosting, lettering.

Indeed, the advertising gave the same message. This was a calorie free "hard drink" for real men who would not be caught dead with something white and girlie.

It took a loooong time, but Coca Cola eventually got the message, launching Coca Cola Zero in 2005. The cola expert would probably be able to taste the difference between Coca Cola Light/Diet Coke and Coke Zero (given that the two contained different artificial sweeteners in some countries), but most people would find it hard to pass a blind test, in spite of constantly changing formulas.

Coca Cola did the same as Pepsi. Zero was black and manly, as opposed to feminine white of Coke Light. Both products were using sex as a sales point, but the intended audience was (mostly) different genders.

Cola from a gender identity perspective

I am sure you expect me to go all gender theory on you now, arguing that men and women are the same by nature (same biological content) while being socialized to behave differently due to language, symbols and semiotics (black vs. white labels).

Not quite. I belong to those who believe that biology plays a part in the development of gender identity as well as sexual orientation, but I do agree that as regards abilities and personality traits, there are -- at best -- only very small differences between men and women on average.

However, I do not belong to those who argue that all advertising should be gender neutral or that using signs to express gender is sexist and degrading. It can be. It often is. And that's bad. But appealing to someones gender and gender identity is not immoral in itself.

Zero and the sex object

Note that most of the zero calorie commercials focus on sex and sexuality. They present men and women as sexual objects, while at the same time giving the message that you will be desired as a woman if you drink Coca Cola Light and as a man if you drink Pepsi Max.
In a more egalitarian
culture men are also
objectified. This ad is not
targeting men.

In spite of what some feminists may tell you, most men and women do not actually mind being seen as sex objects, as long as it leads to something more personal and meaningful later down the line.

Seriously, how can you not objectify people you have never talked to,  in a bar, in a club, in the street or on Tinder?

Some of the ads might have been both bad and sexist (as the ones presented here), but Pepsi didn't invent the human need to be acknowledged as a desirable human being.

To distinguish between gender (culture) and sex (biology) makes perfect sense from an analytical perspective, but we must not be mislead to believe that biological sex and sexuality have nothing to do with gender. They are closely intertwined.
Definitely sexist.

It seems to me that most cultures reflect this need to express the differences between the genders -- even the ones without capitalism and modern marketing -- because  gender differences are  drivers of identity and attraction.

Transgender people long for this kind of affirmation too

This also applies to most gay, lesbian and bisexual people, as well as those transgender.

A butch lesbian is butch, because she is using masculine symbols to express her masculinity and her sexuality. In the same way many MTF crossdressers go for feminine clothing, because it makes it possible for them to express their femininity, sexuality and -- in many cases -- their female identity.

To remove sexuality from butch and femme expressions makes little sense to me.

The movie bound, made by the Wachowski siblings
(crossdreamers who later came out as trans women)
can serve as a great example of how terms like
butch and femme makes sense both as regards
sexuality and identity.

This use of gender expressions might even, in some cases,  apply to non-binary persons and those who are attracted to gender nonconforming people, because gender nonconformity may in some ways be defined by gender conformity. Androgyny and/or non-binary expressions may  reflect their particular blend of the masculine and the feminine.

In any case, not all gender variant people are non-binary at heart. They may try to find themselves some kind of social space where their gender variance is accepted, even if they do not transition, but this kind of gender nonconformity does not necessarily mean that they do not dream about being "the other" gender completely.

It seems to me that many of the crossdreamers and transgender people I have learned to know, identify fully with their target gender. Admittedly, I have had male to female crossdreamers tell me that they cannot possibly be women, because they are not attracted to men or they love computers, but that is the gender stereotypes talking, not their real identity.

Sexuality as a litmus test for gender identity

In fact, I am starting to believe that your sexual wiring (wanting to have sex as a man or a woman) is a better indicator for your "true" gender than interests or abilities.

To put it this way: A woman does not stop being a woman because she drives a truck and loves football. At the moment she starts dreaming about having sex as a man, however, it might make sense for her to seek out a gender specialist.
Who do you want to be? A man...

The need to have your gender affirmed sexually is relevant from a transgender perspective, because trans people -- more than most cis people -- know what it means to never have your true gender affirmed.

I am currently reading the new biography of Lou Sullivan, and what strikes me is that what the founder of the American FTM movement and transgender gay man wanted most of all was to be seen as a gay man among gay men, and be able to desire and be desired as a gay man -- not gender queer, not non-biary -- but as a man. And he wanted all the symbols that accompanies a male identity, including clothing and a body that could express his sexuality.

To me the main problem with pink and blue toys and girls' and boys' clothing (or black and white colas) is not that they are used to express gender identities, but that transgender people are forced to pick a color that do not fit their inner selves and that the number of two colors may be too limiting to some.

The reason the color pink has become a problem in child rearing is not that it signifies and affirms "girlhood", but that it is nearly always associated with stereotypical gender interests.  That is: The child's natural drive towards establishing a gendered identity is used to limit their future social, cultural and political freedom.
...or a woman?

As I see it,  an egalitarian society does not have to be a gender less society. It is, instead a society that respects all genders (male, female and others) and that does not stop people from becoming who they are because of their assigned gender.

Egalitarian culture and the fragile male ego

I suspect that PepsiCo's launch of Pepsi Max was based on the idea that men need to have their masculinity affirmed, and the more fragile their masculinity is, the more they seek out symbols that validate their place in society as a "real man" (whatever that is in that particular place and time).

The 1990s was the time when gender equality started to become given or self-evident in some parts of the world. This equality did not abolish the need to be seen and loved as a man or a woman. Quite the opposite: Now that your occupation or stereotypical interests no longer guaranteed your gendered place in society, people needed to find other ways of making the distinction visible.

In the 1990s men became increasingly aware of the fact that french fries and sugary Coke did not give you the abs or the health the surrounding culture was promoting as the perfect male role model. Men wanted to diet too, but without being caught doing so. Hence the manly cola drink.

The 2010's: The nonbinary cola

Pepsi goes gender neutral in 2009.
In 2009 Pepsi presented its new logo and its new branding, and in the US the masculine "MAX" was replaced by a much more subdued "max". The color was still black(ish), but beyond that the bottle was no more masculine than the rest of the series.

In other parts of the world the company kept the capital letter MAX part (although I believe it returned to the US later on).

Anyway, the 2009 Pepsi redesign was the sign that something was afoot in the world of colas, gender wise.

This move towards a more gender neutral Pepsi Cola was reaffirmed in 2016, when Pepsi even removed the name Max from bottles and cans, now calling it Pepsi Zero Sugar instead.

You will still find the MAX branding in some countries, though, like in parts of Europe and Australia. Whether they will remain is unclear to me. It makes sense to me  to keep the masculine Max label in egalitarian and "feminine" cultures like the ones in Scandinavia, because there men feel the strongest need to hold on to something they can use to express their masculinity, regardless of how meaningless that symbol might be.

Coca Cola is doing the same thing right now. Its new "One Brand Strategy" is unifying all Cola flavors under one brand and one color: red. The idea seems to be that the drink that is now called Coca Cola Zero Sugar, is simply a calorie free version of the classical sugary Cola, a drink that is targeting both men and women. In other words: Coca Cola is going gender neutral.

2015: Coke goes gender neutral in Spain.
 In 2017 Coca Cola Zero becomes Coca Cola Zero Sugar in large parts of the world.
I am sure you will see ads targeting man or women also in the future, but it seems clear that Coca Cola Zero Sugar is not longer a male alibi for drinking diet soft drinks. 

It is unclear to me to what extent the marketing people in these companies are consciously and deliberately going non-binary and whether this reflects the increasing tolerance of gender diversity among millennials.  

It could simply be that they are trying to focus their branding on the main trade mark (Pepsi and Coca Cola). I have also seen some argue that too many customers did not grasp that Pepsi Max was a no calorie drink, and that they therefore had to spell out the no sugar part.  

Regardless, the end effect is that the sub-brand no longer have the same power to reinforce and affirm gender identities as they once had. In a marketing world based on sex, sexuality and -- as often is the case -- sexism, I believe this will be a short lived trend.  If the cola companies cannot supply the gender symbols needed, someone else will. 


  1. Deborah has added an interesting comment to this post over at CDL.

    She writes:

    //i find ad representations of masculinity very oppressive, and i quite understand natal women finding representations of femininity very oppressive. they are more likely to increase your sense of inadequacy at being your gender than to affirm it.//

    The more I learn about both nature and culture, the less I believe they are rational or "fair" in any meaningful sense of the word.

    I am reminded of the peacock feathers, which is a huge drag (literally) as regards the bird's survival, but because of the female peacocks' "fetish" for big, tail feathers with complex, colorful patterns, this is what you get as peacocks go. Birds have very different looks, as we know, so I doubt this is the kind of optimization of "evolutionary fitness" some researchers believe in.

    Among humans the ideal masculine or feminine body type and looks may change in a generation. In the 1950s women ate protein powder to build the curvy body of Marilyn, in the 1960s they starved themselves to death to get the thin body of Twiggy. Apparently, these days the "big booty" is back. The male body ideal has become muscular to the point of parody.

    So yes, mechanisms like these often end up being oppressive and causing us a lot of pain, and we need to do our best to make people believe that fashions may change, but there are nearly always someone out there who likes the kind of person you are.

    My point was rather that even in a society that is open to diversity of this kind, you will need some way of expressing your gender and sexuality. This is unavoidable, and we have to face that fact, and do our best to cope with it. Some seem to believe that the solution is to stop men and women -- trans or cis -- from expressing their sense of self through feminine, masculine or other types of clothing, and I believe that would be a futile experiment. In fact, I think it would make us poorer human beings.

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