In 1984, soft-drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi entered into a space race, each determined to be the first to have their product awkwardly consumed by the Challenger Space Shuttle crew. It was an astronomically expensive marketing stunt that spoke to their commitment to achieving world domination; the planet, it seemed, was quite literally not big enough for the two of them.
Both brands eventually managed to get their drinks to the bemused astronauts, after wrestling with the brain-melting amount of science it took to figure out how to consume a carbonated beverage in space. In the end, the small target market wasn’t sold, with the crew reporting that both actually tasted terrible in zero gravity. But by then it didn’t matter. For the rapt public it wasn’t about the product anymore; it was about reaching a surreal pinnacle in a battle for soda supremacy that’s now been raging for more than 120 years.
But while these commercial behemoths were chugging away, other, much less glamorous, competitors were emerging. Competitors whose goal was not to see their product drunk by stars—or among them—but to inhabit a different, yet equally as vital, cultural space. Whereas Coca-Cola and Pepsi strove for global brand domination, these new alternatives spoke, in hindsight especially, to issues of class and personal identity. They were the off-brand colas.
These drinks have always been quiet signifiers: bottom-shelf colas are for bored teenagers to tip out in the parking lot and turn into bongs. To have a fridge laden with their cheaply designed labels hinted at the poor and the weird: They were offered for 60 cents from vending machines outside Kmart, where your parents shopped for off-brand surfwear. Never from the depths of your rich friend’s kitchen pantry.
To see off-brand colas served at a birthday signaled you’d entered a world in which lax adults served generic-brand junk food and freedom. The parties with bottom-shelf colas were the parties with food fights, where you’d mix all the soft drinks together and declare them cocktails. Events at which you could gorge until you knew you either wouldn’t shit for a week, or shit non-stop for 24 hours. In short, a child’s party with generic cola sent the same message as a wedding with Aldi wine does today: We’re here to fucking party.
These drinks were blessings; not because of their slightly flat taste, but because they were served when the people in charge weren’t really paying attention. When the authority figures supposed to be controlling you were just phoning it in. The bottles arrived by the crate-load to school camps your parents couldn't wait to send you off to; camps where teachers weren’t paid enough to remain emotionally present after 4PM. You gripped the sweating, cheaply branded cans while sneaking around after dark. When finished, you ashed your first ever cigarette, stolen from a high ropes instructor, into their shell.
Which is all to say, Pepsi and Coke, with their grand market aspirations, don’t make memories. They’re for people who want to be happy; for well-adjusted, famous, ambitious people. Generic colas, inversely, are for those who don’t give a fuck. For people who want a hit of sugar, a rush, to enjoy themselves, and to not think too much about it. Who refuse to be constrained by silent social codes and who will one day host a child’s birthday party semi-buzzed, serving cheap terrible food to children who will love them for it.
These consumers will ignore the deeply uncomfortable other parents eyeing up the terrible food, because they know they’re living their own life, not one sold to them. And they’ll happily wash that sense of accomplishment down with an 18-cent glass of cola. Off-brand.