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Pink Power: TaB Is Back, Sort Of

TaB Energy ... is it fuel to be fabulous?

Some people remember TaB Cola for its distinctive pink can, while others recall its "unique" taste. Still others associate the soft drink with a 1970s cancer scare.

Now, TaB is back — sort of. The Coca-Cola Company has reengineered the TaB franchise, pink can and all, as a highly-caffeinated energy drink called TaB Energy, marketed, like the original TaB, toward young, "health"-conscious women.

And weight-conscious celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie have already been seen tossing back a cold one.

"Nicole Richie and Fergie (from the Black-Eyed Peas) were seen guzzling TaB Energy drink all over Manhattan," said Jarett Wieselman, senior lifestyle editor for In Touch Weekly magazine. "And when these two put their stamp of approval on a product, expect other celebrities to follow suit."

But the name TaB, somewhat unfairly, also has another stamp on it: carcinogen. The original sweetener in TaB, saccharin, was linked in tests to cancer in laboratory rats, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration moved to ban the substance in the 1970s.

Eventually, saccharin was cleared, in a sense, when further tests showed that saccharin did cause cancer, but only in laboratory rats given massively unlikely doses of the sweetener every day.

According to the label, the new TaB Energy is sugar-free, aspartame-free and saccharin-free (the sweetener this time around is Sucralose), and is hyper-loaded with caffeine (95mg), ginseng (116mg), taurine (785 mg) and carnitine (19 mg).

Coca-Cola is doing its best to get celebs behind their new comeback in a can. TaB Energy was officially introduced Feb. 2 with a premiere party to kick off New York Fashion Week, complete with models, celebs and custom pink furniture.

And a major ad campaign (“TaB Energy... Fuel To Be Fabulous”) is scheduled to begin during Sunday night's Oscar telecast.

“TaB Energy will be introduced to America in style," said Mary Merrill, Sports and Energy Drinks group director for The Coca-Cola Company.

Speaking of style, the new TaB Energy can is slimmer, but still "fashionably pink," with the same pop-art logo. The taste and color of the drink, however, have changed. According to Coca-Cola, it's now a "deliciously pink 5-calorie energy drink created specifically for women with a sense of style and purpose."

Aside from Lohan, Richie and Fergie, other women (and one man) with a sense of style and purpose who were also spotted pounding back a TaB Energy at Fashion Week include Missy Elliott, Pamela Anderson, JC Chasez, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Kimberly Stewart and Christina Milian.

"The design is great and it is a much prettier can to be caught by the paparazzi drinking — and the pink design makes it almost like an accessory," said Wieselman.

But in spite of the Hollywood buzz, Coca-Cola says the upcoming ad campaign will be celeb-free.

"The brand is the star," said Coca-Cola brand manager Scott Williamson.

But how does it taste? Fashion Week Daily described the taste as like "a liquid Jolly Rancher," while other reviewers have described the flavor as a lightly-carbonated cross between cough syrup and Pixie Sticks.

Either description, depending on personal taste, could be considered an improvement on the original TaB Cola, with its distinctive "metallic" taste that has left a few drinkers over the years wondering exactly where the can ended and the cola began.

This reporter gave TaB Energy a try, and personally found the taste to be something like Sweet Tart-flavored Alka-Seltzer — but this reporter is also not exactly part of TaB Energy's target demographic.

In any event, energy drinks are often mixed with vodka or other alcoholic drinks. Fashion Week Daily notes in particular the "Stiletto Confession" —- a brain-bruising cocktail made of TaB Energy, vodka, orange liqueur and pineapple juice.

"It is replacing Red Bull as the energy drink du jour, especially at trendy clubs where it’s being mixed with vodka," said Wieselman.

But will TaB Energy mark a refreshing turning point for the flat franchise, or is it just another hiccup in the strange story of a star-struck brand name that after over 40 years is both reviled and revered?

TaB seems to have always been the black sheep in the Coca-Cola family. Launched in 1963 as one of the first diet colas (No-Cal being the first, in 1952), Coca-Cola execs at that time were hesitant to affix the term "Diet" to Coca-Cola, so the name "TaB" was chosen as a tribute to those who were "keeping tab" of their weight.

According to cola legend, the drink was actually dubbed TaB as an acronym for "Totally Artificial Beverage” — a great story which, unfortunately, Coca-Cola says is completely untrue. The name was actually chosen by computer and market research.

The saccharin scandal in the '70s did its damage, and the introduction of Diet Coke in the early 1980s pushed TaB even further out to the fringes of the public's tastes.

Today, TaB Cola is still produced in small amounts, and still makes occasional pop-culture appearances in movies like “Austin Powers” and TV shows like “The Simpsons."

And according to a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, although the original TaB Cola is essentially dead from a marketing and sales standpoint, it has maintained a loyal cult of followers, particularly among writers and other edge-dwelling characters who seem drawn to the strange dance with danger associated with an allegedly carcinogenic drink.

Those hardcore TaB Cola fans need not worry about "classic" TaB suddenly becoming extinct —Coca-Cola says there are no plans to stop making the original formula.

It remains to be seen if TaB Energy will become the must-have drink of 2006 — the energy drink industry is crowded and highly competitive. And it's also unclear whether or not the combination of pink-can fashion and star-power will be enough to keep TaB Energy from joining the ranks of past failed TaB offshoots like TaB Rootbeer, TaB Orange, TaB Ginger Ale, TaB Strawberry, TaB Lemon-Lime, TaB Black Cherry and TaB Clear.

But the TaB brand has proven to be nothing if not resilient, and at least for now, people are once again starting to pay some attention to the brand in the pink can, if perhaps only for the famous person holding it in her hand.

"I think the big draw is that TaB was so huge in its heyday that these celebs want to be seen as the ones who brought it back into the mainstream," said Wieselman.

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