Diet Coke is my one true love. There, I said it. Along with essentials like my phone and keys, a cold Diet Coke is the one thing I can’t get through the day without. Cans have seen me through crippling university deadlines, late nights at work, and countless hangovers. To me, nothing could be sweeter than the sound of a can opening, followed by that first sip of carbonated, caffeinated, ice-cold perfection.
But where does my adoration of DC come from? I asked myself this recently, when a new study emerged that shocked me to my silver can-stanning core. In the largest analysis of the health effects of non-sugar sweeteners to date, German researchers found little evidence that sugar-free drinks such as Diet Coke led to weight loss or held any significant health benefits when compared to high-sugar alternatives.
This scientific rebuke isn’t really that surprising. I’m used to politely nodding when people tell me about the allegedly horrifying health risks associated with aspartame, the sweetener used to make Diet Coke, and this hasn’t stopped me from drinking it. It seems that my loyalty to Diet Coke has as much to do with identity—in my case, expressing femininity and rejecting heterosexual norms—as it does taste or health.
Many other gay men tell me they have a similar relationship with Diet Coke.
“I guess it’s a very subtle way of differing from the heteronorm and being a bit feminine, more so than ordering a pink cocktail with an umbrella,” says 32-year-old television producer Matt. “If I’m out with my mum or a female friend and one of us orders a Diet Coke and the other orders full sugar, the server often gives the Diet Coke to the woman I’m with instead of me, so there’s an assumption there.”
Fashion buyer Sam says he’s “ride or die” for Diet Coke.
“There’s just something so ‘gay culture’ about it. It could be snowing outside and I’ll still drink one,” he adds.
While Diet Coke does not explicitly advertise itself as a female product, low-calorie drinks are overwhelmingly marketed towards women—in part due to the fact that being skinny and dieting have been promoted to female consumers since the dawn of advertising. Indeed research shows that Americans think of supposedly healthy foods, such as salad, as “feminine.” The “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” meme highlighted how ingrained this thinking has become.
“There’s just something so ‘gay culture’ about it. It could be snowing outside and I’ll still drink one.”
As the drink of choice for nineties supermodels, adverts for Diet Coke often depicted glamorous women who indulge in a moment of escapism while enjoying the fizzy drink. An infamous 1995 advert shows women in an office “taking a Diet Coke break” to thirst over a shirtless workman outside. Another features female puppets working at a fashion magazine, dancing sassily on their desks as they sip cans of Diet Coke. The drink is equated with glamour, femininity, and low-calorie fun. With such vivid associations, it's easy to see why buying a can of Diet Coke can be interpreted as a “feminine” choice.
Studies show that men are most sensitive to the dynamics of gendering in the products they buy. Harvard Business School’s Jill J. Avery writes: “Girls and women seem to have more freedom to consume products and brands commonly associated with the other gender than boys and men, who are more tightly constrained by the prevailing views of masculinity.”
A 2010 study, titled “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche,” came up with similar findings. It found that when men are given limited time to choose a drink, they make a split-second choice of whatever their initial preference is—even if appears to be “feminine.” But if given time to choose, they tend to go for the safer, “masculine” option. This means that men often find themselves drinking a whisky or beer, rather than their preferred pink gin, purely based on how long they’ve had to choose.
Speaking to bar staff confirms that even in 2019, certain drinks still hold gender connotations for some people.
“There is definitely a noticeable difference in how men and women order drinks, particularly in anyone over 25,” Lucy Bonnar, restaurant and bar manager at Sloans in Glasgow, tells me. “Girls and gay men seem to have more freedom, but if it’s a group of lads and one orders a gin and tonic, there’s always an expected backlash from the rest of the group.”
John Longland, general manager at East London pub The Bell, notes a difference in the drinks younger men order.
“Younger folk in London are much less likely to ‘conform’ to drink stereotypes and it is definitely decreasing,” he says. “But the likelihood of seeing one of the ‘city geezers’ ordering a gin and tonic with the ‘lads’ at lunch is pretty slim.”
To encourage men to embrace low-calorie drinks, brands including Coca-Cola have attempted a “bro-ification” of sugar-free alternatives. Coke Zero, a male-marketed version of Diet Coke with an almost identical recipe and taste, launched in 2005. Shirking Diet Coke’s metallic clutch bag-esque appearance, the Coke Zero can is matt black and red. An advert for the new drink from 2009 follows a Mission Impossible-style narrative, with a male protagonist thinking quickly when the father of the woman he has presumably just shagged arrives at the door. Men soon flocked to Coke Zero.
Avery sees this as evidence of men’s aversion to Diet Coke’s feminised marketing. She writes: “What they [Coca-Cola] quickly realised was that even though there was a functional need for men to drink lower-calorie soda, men couldn't bridge the gender gap image-wise without a new brand and product just for them.”
Evidence might suggest that many men and women choose products that align with the gender identity they were assigned at birth, but what about those who do the opposite? As a feminine gay man, new “bro cal” drinks have done little to sway me from my beloved Diet Coke. Of course, I grew up playing with dolls and bonding within female friendship groups, so my identity is far removed from the woman-bedding lothario targeted by “male” low-calorie drinks like Coke Zero. Either way, life coach Lisa Phillips tells me that the food and drink products we consume send a message to the world about how we want to be seen.
“Some of us make food or drink choices based on how we want people to perceive us or how they make us feel,” she says. "For example, some women may drink a glass of wine on a date, as we believe it will make us look classy or ‘womanly,’ as opposed to knocking back a pint."
These choices are likely come from our own perceptions or emotional attachments.
“There is definitely a noticeable difference in how men and women order drinks, particularly in anyone over 25.”
“It’s all about communicating to ourselves and others,” Phillips explains. “If a gay man associates a drink like Diet Coke with being gay, they might drink it as a way of communicating who they really are to themselves and the wider world.”
In Changing Gay Male Identities, Andrew Cooper analyses the effects of “commodity capitalism” on gay identities. A term first coined by sociologist Anthony Giddens, it describes efforts to convince consumers that their “project of the self” translates into the “possession of desired goods and the pursuit of artificially framed styles of life.” Cooper suggests that gay men tend to be hypersensitive consumers who rely on products to form a “successful” identity and project a “robust sense of self” to the world. What an individual considers as “successful” in relation to their sexuality is key to their product choices. Given that men tend to be less keen on associating with female products, something as small as a can of Diet Coke can, to effeminate gay men like me, be subtle way of expressing individual queerness and femininity.
Marketing works. Why else would millions have been spent on feminising (then masculinising) low-calorie drinks? And yet, as my enduring gay love affair with Diet Coke shows, intensely gendered marketing can also encourage people to flout gender norms—even in something as innocuous as a choice of drink.
Diet Coke might not shatter society's gender constructs, but I’m going to continue the most consistent relationship I’ve ever had, with an aluminium can of zero-calorie goodness. Because drinking it still feels like a quiet act of rebellion.