Tab Wasn’t Just a Mildly Gross Diet Soda. It Was a Cultural Touchstone

Coca-Cola is discontinuing Tab, and it’s truly the end of an era
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Dustin Hoffman drank it in Kramer vs. Kramer. Matthew Broderick sipped one in War Games. A can of the stuff even popped up in Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Throughout the ’70s and early ’80s—until that interloper Diet Coke came along—Tab was the number one diet cola on planet earth. Yes, it tasted like battery acid and shag carpet, but back then it was as much a part of the cultural landscape as princess phones, mood rings, and toe socks. And now, like so much else from that epoch, it’s officially a relic: Coca-Cola announced on October 16 that it would be discontinuing Tab as part of its plan to “retire select underperforming products” by the end of the year.

In truth, Tab—or, more correctly, “TaB,” with a swirly lower-case “a” in the middle—had already all but disappeared. In recent years, it has only been available in a few select markets, Los Angeles being one of them. A slew of more modern, better-tasting low-cal beverages pushed it from most supermarket shelves long ago, with only a handful of die-hard fans (call them “Tabbies”) keeping the brand alive. Still, its place in the pantheon of modern-day soft drinks is unassailable. It was Coca-Cola’s first diet soda and its eye-catching pinkish-red can—not to mention its slender, knobby-textured bottle—filled tens of millions of American pantries.

That cameo in a First Blood movie notwithstanding, Tab was originally marketed as a women’s drink when it was launched in 1963 — ironically, the same year Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. In fact, the early history of the soda and the history of the women’s movement were tandem opposites through much of the 1970s. While Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem were pioneering feminism’s second wave, Tab was being peddled with a now-jaw-droppingly sexist magazine ad campaign (“Stay in his mind”) that promised the drink would give women “a shape he can’t forget.” By the end of the decade, the tag lines grew less offensive, if no less dorky—“Tab’s got sass”—as both genders started guzzling the stuff. By the 1980s, even Rambo characters were popping open cans.

To be sure, it was never what anybody would call a healthy drink; at one point, Coca-Cola was forced to put a warning label on it after studies found a link between its main sweeteners—cyclamate and saccharin—and bladder cancer (later the recipe switched to NutraSweet). But back then people were still smoking on airplanes and driving exploding Pintos—a little cyclamate didn’t scare anyone. What really ended up killing Tab? In 1982, Coca-Cola launched a new upstart low-calorie soda, Diet Coke, and Tab’s reign as king of the diet drinks quickly came to an end. To this day, Diet Coke remains the number one diet soda in the world (the number three soda of them all, after classic Coke and Pepsi).

Still, if you’re like me—and I know I am—the end of Tab represents an end an era. That foul-tasting beverage filled with toxic ingredients conjures up images of a golden age in American life—the swish of sprinklers on suburban lawns, mothers in head scarfs baking Jello Spritz cookies, annoyed dads fiddling with rabbit ear TV antennas— that has, sadly, been lost forever. Tab did indeed have sass.


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