Make Diet Coke chic again

On the drink's 40th birthday, it’s time to reconsider the legacy of fashion’s favourite bev.

by Roisin Lanigan
08 July 2022, 8:44am

Today officially marks 40 years since the world was introduced to Diet Coke. It wasn’t the first sugar-free soda the world had ever seen. In the late 50s and early 60s Diet Rite, Diet Pepsi, and Tab, Coca Cola’s much less sexy-sounding diet cola drink (which, believe it or not, was only discontinued in 2020) were all introduced to the market. But Diet Coke, introduced two decades later, certainly became the most culturally relevant. Diet Coke, the company seemed to be saying at launch, was not just a beverage, it was a red and silver talisman of taste, an extremely 80s way to perform identity through consumerism. By the end of the decade it was named, also in a quintessentially 80s way, Brand of the Decade. Even before that it was obvious though: Diet Coke was immediately chic.

And to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the drink, Diet Coke doubled down on that legacy, announcing last week that Kate Moss would be their new creative director. “I am thrilled to join the Diet Coke family,” the supermodel and many-time i-D cover star said in a statement. “I love the past collaborations they’ve done with such incredible names in fashion. The ‘Love What You Love’ campaign [which spotlights individuals with a ‘positive attitude to life’] connected with me instantly as I am a firm believer that with confidence and passion, you can achieve your wildest dreams.” Disregarding the breathless overdramatic mission statement, Kate’s new job is well-timed. Diet Coke is becoming cool again.

It wasn’t always like this. Fashion is a fickle business and nobody has weathered their time in the wilderness of uncoolness over the past years like Diet Coke. The girlboss era was not a great one for the brand. Sales of the drink declined steadily since 2006, and in 2013 they hit their lowest figures in nearly 20 years. Millennials, as it is often pointed out, are unlike boomers (the original target audience for Diet Coke). We care, supposedly, a lot more about our health, and grew up exposed to endless articles speculating on Diet Coke’s links to weight gain, tooth decay and even cancer (even though these links are debunked just as often as they’re proposed). Gen Xers, the first generation to have grown up in a Diet Coke world, were suddenly trying to kick the lifetime habit. A New York Times article in which the writer discusses their 40-year addiction went viral last summer, citing a thriving Facebook group called Diet Soda Coke Drinkers Who WANT to Quit. In 2017, sales of bottled water surpassed diet sodas for the first time ever. An article published on Diet Coke’s 30th anniversary reads like an obituary: “In the absence of any damning evidence, Diet Coke now occupies that twilight zone – along with dairy, wheat and Snack-a-Jacks. There's nothing actively wrong with them, but if you feel your body is a temple, you won't let them in,” it says, calling drinking Diet Coke a “visible vice”. But people didn’t want vices anymore. People, particularly women, were at last disavowing diet culture. Instead we wanted health and wellness, to be clean girls.

Even outside the era’s growing cultural obsession with health, Diet Coke encountered another PR problem in early 2016: the presidency of Donald Trump. The former president said he drank 12 cans a day, and even had a Diet Coke button installed in the Oval Office (which Biden subsequently removed). Yet, “I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke”, he famously once tweeted, without a hint of irony. By 2018, the drink was associated with the negative, futile effects of constant dieting, and also now: fascism. Which wasn’t great. Even a rebrand that same year, meant to make Diet Coke and its flavoured offspring seem “more gender neutral and diverse”, did little to assuage this image problem. It was their moment of panic.

So what has changed, just a few years on? The departure of Trump and his Diet Coke button has certainly helped, but so too has the arrival of a nostalgia for the 90s and 00s that makes Kate Moss’s appointment as Creative Director feel so well-timed. The Etta James soundtracked “I Just Want To Make Love To You” Diet Coke ads of the era, once attacked for “reverse sexism” in their objectification of men, now seem harmless at worst and iconic (in a kind of pre-Magic Mike way) at best. The well-meaning optimism that defined the culture of the 2010s – one that manifested in the myopic buying up of single-use plastic water bottles and simultaneously hand-wringing about our health – now feels a little bit passé. The bottles still ended up in landfill. The pandemic still came for us. It’s inevitable that we started looking towards the debauchery of the past in our quest for anything new and exciting.

Much has already been written about the vibe shift that’s made us all more hedonistic and nihilistic as we roll into our first true post-pandemic summer. Finally free of restrictions and able to return to event season, coupled with the pressure of a cost of living crisis and impending climate doom, we’re already drinking more (alcohol and aspartame both), smoking more, taking more drugs and fundamentally being weirder. One response to the viral New York Times piece about quitting a bad Diet Coke habit shrugs: “It’s just one of thousands of man-made chemicals that are slowly poisoning me and you and everyone on Earth, altering our bodies in ways that will horrify the aliens who eventually sift through the ruins of human society.” A New Yorker piece from 2018 that was supposedly charting the brand’s fall from grace reads — with the benefit of hindsight — like a manifesto for 2022: “Coke culture and coke culture arrived together, hand in sequinned glove,” it says. “Diet Coke fit with everything new, and seemingly cost-free, about the [90s].” But now 90s supermodels are back. Indie sleaze is back. Diet Coke is back.

The fashion world has been waiting for this moment, or trying to engineer it, however you look at it. Diet Coke has always been, after all, “the ultimate fashion accessory”. Its collaborations are storied: previous creative directors have included Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier. In 2011, Karl Lagerfeld even announced a collaboration with Diet Coke, as an avowed superfan of the bev who supposedly drank 10 cans a day. “I drink Diet Coke from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed,” he told Harpers Bazaar. “I can even drink it in the middle of the night, and I can sleep. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t drink tea, I drink nothing else.” JW Anderson collaborated with Diet Coke too, designing a bottle he described not as a bottle, but “an icon”.

It would be remiss not to mention that the danger of the chic, fashion-led, hedonistic, phoenix rising of Diet Coke is that with it we return to the body standards of the late 90s and early 2000s which prioritised thinness over all else. In the few days since Kate Moss has been announced the brand’s new creative director, people have already speculated on what this means for toxic diet culture. The problem with tying diet culture specifically to this Diet Coke renaissance though, is that it ignores the insidiousness of the cult of thinness and the fact it continued to exist throughout the down years of Diet Coke, and throughout the health obsession of the 2010s. It just manifested during that period through green smoothies, bottled spring water and vague concerns about the chemicals in our food that had little to do with the actual chemicals and more to do with the justification of going vegan, raw or gluten-free for aesthetic reasons.

Diet culture never went away, it was just co-opted as wellness. Still, there’s no question that our current body standards are in flux – the BBL era is coming to an end, reformer pilates is suddenly alarmingly popular – and we can only hope that the changing standards of the past four decades since Diet Coke dropped, one that’s made the fashion and beauty industries slowly but surely more body-positive (albeit still with a long ways to go) will temper that flux from becoming irreversibly toxic.

But more importantly: we’ve also learned in the past 40 years that drinking Diet Coke doesn’t actually have anything to do with thinness. The name is a misnomer. We know it’s not good for you either. Neither of these things have necessarily put us off. Instead, we continue to use the silver and red talismans as fashion accessories, post-ironic cultural signifiers of our cringe tastes and foul tastebuds, markers of nostalgia, recyclable fonts of inspiration (read: caffeine). To paraphrase Kate Moss, we love what we love. We love bad things. We love camp. We love Diet Coke.

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