Cherry Chocolate Diet Dr Pepper

Court Ruling: Diet Doesn’t Mean Much

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rendered a great truth this week. The word diet doesn’t mean much. That word is no guarantee that whatever it describes will make you lose weight. In fact, you might even gain weight. Said this San Francisco court in a unanimous ruling:

The prevalent understanding of the term in (the marketplace) is that the “diet” version of a soft drink has fewer calories than its “regular” counterpart. Just because some consumers may unreasonably interpret the term differently does not render the use of “diet” in a soda’s brand name false or deceptive.

This case was all about Diet Dr Pepper. But the same result came a year ago when the same person brought the same complaint against Diet Coke.

But I Didn’t Lose Weight!

Apparently, Shana Becerra thought it unfair that this soda did not solve the problem she has had with obesity since childhood. She had been drinking Diet Dr Pepper for more than 13 years and “did not get what she paid for.” That meant, she reasoned, that the advertising was deceptive and everyone in California who drank this soda should get a class action settlement.

A Hollow Word

Writing in Quartz, Chase Purdy is sympathetic to the plaintiff. He complains that the court just “hollowed out” the meaning of diet foods.

We have a clue for Mr. Purdy. The word diet has long been pretty hollow in terms of meaning. It’s one of those empty vessels into which you can pour many different meanings. It can be used to convey something sinister – as in diet culture. Or it can be mundane, as when it’s used as a placeholder for any pattern of eating – someone’s usual diet.

In the case of this soda, that word was merely a tool for selling a product. It was first called Dietetic Dr Pepper. That didn’t sell. So the marketers changed it to Sugar-Free Dr. Pepper. But the best results came when they moved on to this simple four-letter word. Sales took off.

Moving on From Dieting

However, all of that is history now. If you look at the market leader – Coke – you might notice that the D-word is not so popular anymore. What’s selling under the Coke brand is Zero Sugar. All the pleasure of soda with none of that toxic sugar. Thanks to Robert Lustig, Coke has a great new marketing tool.

So it is with marketing and words. They can adapt.

Click here and here for more on the diet lawsuit

Cherry Chocolate Diet Dr Pepper, photograph © Tony Webster / flickr

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January 2, 2020

One Response to “Court Ruling: Diet Doesn’t Mean Much”

  1. January 02, 2020 at 1:48 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    Words on products like ‘diet’, ‘healthy’, ‘fat-free’, ‘low-fat’, ‘carb-smart’ and so on, do, indeed, draw consumers to pick them thinking they are better for their bodies. Often, people feel that they can consume MORE of such labeled products. This is doing such a disservice to the population. My hope for the decade is that people will choose to consume more products that need no labels — wholesome foods, water — just nourishing and tasty and in amounts agreeable to enjoyment and satisfying hunger but not encouraging getting uncomfortably full. If the efforts and investments of marketeers prove fruitless for increased sales, perhaps there will be less of misleading labeling happening.