In 1981, Project Kansas was hatched secretly in the boardroom of one of the most successful companies in the US. It was the desperate gambit of a company that was rapidly losing its footing, and it would set off a chain of events that took the whole country by a storm. Within a few years almost every American would get caught up in the exploding cola war that had started almost a century earlier.  

In 1866, pharmacist John Stith Pemberton was in trouble. He had been wounded badly by a sword cut to the chest during the Civil War, and the nurses gave him what they gave everyone wounded, large quantities of morphine. John became rapidly addicted, and found it affecting him when he got back to his old job. So over the next ten years, he brewed a number of health tonics, to try to wean himself off that addition.

In his last iteration, he used a number of spices like vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, and citrus oils. He added a little bit of cocaine from coca leaves (which was then legal), as well as caffeine from kola nuts to act as stimulants to get him through the day. He called the tonic Coca-Cola after its most invigorating ingredients. Little did he know that people would one day describe themselves as addicted to his invention.

Pemberton ended up selling his formula to Asa Griggs Chandler, for anywhere from $238.98 to $300 or $2,300 depending on which historical account you read, but never got to see its success as he passed in 1888 shortly after selling the formula. Asa Chandler on the other hand, incorporated the Coca-Cola company in 1892, and became a tycoon, real estate developer and mayor of Atlanta.

Within three years of incorporating the Coca-Cola, he was distributing it nationwide, and by 1901 it was being sold widely in Cuba and Europe as well. He was a marketing genius, one of the first to incorporate merchandise as part of his marketing strategy. He also created a franchising system where he would sell the bottling rights to any company for $1, as long as they bought the syrup base from his company. Coca-Cola became the first iconic soft drink company, and by 1948, it has 60% of the market share, far ahead of the competition and the clear king of soft drinks.

The other cola in the cola war, had a much more troubled beginning. It too was founded by a pharmacist, Caleb David Bradham, who formulated it in 1893 as a digestive aid he called plainly Brad’s Drink. He eventually changed the name to Pepsi-Cola in 1898, but struggled to get it accepted in the marketplace. After the instability caused by WWI, the company went bankrupt in 1923, it was bought out of bankruptcy, but in 1931 went bankrupt again. Each time, it tried to sell itself to its rival Coca-Cola,  but each time was turned away.

Pepsi remained the failing step-child until 1975 when it came up with a brilliant marketing strategy, the Pepsi Challenge. They set up booths in malls across the country, and had people drink from two white cups. After they declared their preference, they would be shown which was the Pepsi and which the Coca-Cola. It turned out that more people liked Pepsi than Coke, and that was real bad for the Coca-Cola Company.

Despite Coca-Cola outspending Pepsi by $100 Million a year, their market share plummeted from 60% to 22%. All was not good in Coca-Cola Land. In 1980, Coca-Cola appointed a new CEO, Roberto Goizueta, and he famously proclaimed that there were no “sacred cows,” everything was on the table to stop the sliding. And one year later, Project Kansas was launched to come up with a new formula for the sagging Coca-Cola.

Enormous ploys were enacted to make sure it was a secret, but testing was done with over 200,000 people on dozens of iterations to find a winning formula. The food scientist at Coca-Cola finally settled on a version that tested 8% higher than Pepsi and 20% higher than the standard Coca-Cola. It was sweeter, owing to the large infusion high fructose corn syrup, a cheaper corn-based alternative to the sugar used in Coca-Cola.

One interesting finding that the researchers noticed, was that when they asked the participants if they would drink the beverage they were testing if Coca-Cola were to adopt the formula, most responded positively, but 11%, including some who had preferred the new formula, had a hostile response. They were surprised and hurt that Coca-Cola would dare to tinker with the formula that to them was as American as apple pie and baseball. Not only that, but they would often use peer pressure to turn the opinion of other respondents. The researchers detected this and removed their effect from the data.

After millions of dollars in research and months in testing, the decision was made to change the formula. The new product was launched on April 23, 1985, when the Robert Goizueta and other Coca-Cola officials met with their franchise bottlers and announced “The New Taste of Coca Cola.”  It came along with new branding, cans of soda would now have the word COKE written in large going from top to bottom, totally unlike the old cans with the iconic Coca-Cola written horizontally. The world quaked. The announcement registered a 8.7 on the social Richter scale of the world.

Little did Coca-Cola know that Pepsi had learned of their secret using corporate spied and had not only prepared their own new formula in case it was successful, but had also prepared ad campaigns claiming that Pepsi had officially won the Cola Wars, to the point that Coca-Cola had to change their iconic recipe. They planted reporters in the press conference Robert Goizueta gave the next day, pestering him with question to the point where he was seen sweating profusely. It looked like an initial victory for Pepsi.

But the world seemed to be loving the idea of the new Coke. The stock market rewarded Coca-Cola with an immediate boost, and sales improved by 8% in the first few weeks. I remember buying a can of the new Coke, but I ironically, I can’t remember feeling strongly about it in either direction. For me, soda was such a rare treat at that age, that any soda was just awesome. Surveys indicated that 75% of consumers said they would continue to buy the New Coke. Pepsi execs nervously watched the trends and were almost ready to pull the trigger on their new formula, Pepsi Supreme.

But then something strange happened. After a few weeks, about 11% of consumers had a visceral response to the New Coke. Just like the 11% of testers, they were howlingly angry at Coca-Cola for messing with the formula of the drink they had grown up. They founded clubs, like The Old Cola Drinkers of America, they began writing harsh editorials in the newspapers, and some even unsuccessfully sued the Coca-Cola company to force them to change back to the old formula.

Coke delivery men were attacked. The Coca Cola corporate headquarters was flooded with angry letters and phone calls. People compared it to spitting on the flag. When Coca-Cola hired psychologists to try understand the consumer’s complaints, they came back with a report that people were talking about the change the same way they would talk about a deceased relative. When ads for New Coke wer flashed on the scoreboard of baseball fields, spectators stopped watching the game to boo the advertisement.

The whole New Coke fiasco came to a screeching halt on July 11, 1985, when TV reporters interrupted the regular programming with the breaking news, after just 79 days, the original recipe was being reinstated. The world rejoiced, the streets were filled with celebrations not seen since V-Day on May 8, 1945 when the news broke of the German surrender. On the floor of the US Senate, David Pryor (D-AK) called the reintroduction, “a meaningful moment in US History.”

Pepsi tried to capitalize on Coca-Cola’s waffling, and indeed for a moment Pepsi pulled ahead of Coke in overall sales for the first time. But then the incredible occurred, over several months the restoration of the original Coca-Cola recipe reversed people’s anger at the company, and it became a national lovefest for Coca-Cola, people embraced the  beverage they had once taken for granted, and by the end of 1985, Coca-Cola pulled ahead of Pepsi by a wide margin, and has never looked back since. What almost doomed the company, ended up being its catapult for its enduring success.


What I find most fascinating about the story of Coca-Cola’s 1985 adventure, is the power of the 11%. Even though, New Coke was heavily favored by most people for it’s smoother taste, 11% of people, including some who actually preferred New Coke in blind tests, were able to sway the entire nation into a campaign of disgust against one of the largest companies in the world, and to force them to reverse what they had spent years and millions of dollars working on! Such a small group can turn a nation.

We ironically see this happening right now in the post October 7th world. The vast majority of Americans were pro-Israel in the wake of the horrific attack on Israel. But there was that small percent of very vocal, mostly young people, on college campuses and in major cities, that began campaigning on behalf of Hamas.

They are the ones that came up with absurd justifications of the attack, and chanted slogans like “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” which essentially calls for the eradication of all Jews in Israel, and “all resistance is justified,” which makes the absurd moral defense of what the barbaric terrorists did on October 7th. But that small percent of people, by keeping up the pressure, by becoming more vocal and offensive, by shutting down airports and bridges, are somehow starting to change public opinion, and support for Israel’s response to Hamas is now below 40%.

The power of the small but vocal can never be underestimated. This may explain the obsession we have with removing every last crumb of Chametz from our homes before Pesach. The Torah directly prohibits us from eating or even owning any Chametz on Pesach, and the Jewish people spend the weeks leading up to Pesach on the hunt for any lost Cheerios, any graham cracker crumbs under the bed, any errant rugelach that fell underneath the sofa. We seem to be overly obsessed with some tiny little leaven, what is this fixation for?

We find a very interesting prayer in the Talmud (Berachot 17A), “R’ Alexandri, after the Amidah (Shemoneh Esrei) would say thus, ‘Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, but what holds us back? The yeast in the dough and our subjugation to foreign regimes. May it be Your will that You save us from their hands, so that we return to serve You with a complete heart.”

In this prayer, R’ Alexandri likens the Evil Inclination, our negative urges to the yeast in the dough, the chametz. If we watch dough rising we might understand why. It doesn’t rise quickly, rather it grows so slowly that the growth is almost imperceptibe. This may be the source for the famous phrase “A watched dough never rises.” But if you leave it, ignore it, and come back a few hours later, you will find that the little bowl of dough you left behind has tripled in size, going from a cute little dough boy, to a huge dough monster! The power of the small but vocal can never be underestimated.

Pesach is about freedom, and the most important thing for us to free is ourselves. As long as we are shackled by drives and impulses, by the Evil Inclination, the leaven in the dough, we are not free. As long as laziness and lust are allowed to linger, as long as we allow anger and arrogance to abide, as long jealousy, judgementalism, and jadedness are able to fester in our system, we are not free. Not only that, but they will grow and morph like rising dough, slowly suffocating our soul.

When we search out the chametz, every last Cheerio or graham cracker, we are showing that we want to root our negative traits entirely from our system, leaving them no room in our heart, no space in our mind. Because we know that the tiny vocal minority can slowly take over the whole body.

On Pesach, there is another small item we focus on, but in a very positive way. The Matzah, that simple little bread, just water and flour, flat and unobtrusive, unassuming and plain, is suddenly put on the center stage. Because the Matzah is totally authentic, not puffed up with hot air, not adulterated with any flavorings, sugars, preservatives, or additives. And if over the course of Pesach, we can learn to revere the real, appreciate the authentic, and savor the sacred, we can find a new freedom. A freedom to be our true selves; souls looking for holiness, love, kindness, and sanctity. Neshamas who only want to do good and speak good. Beings who soar when triumphing with self-discipline and self-control. G-d’s children who exult in being a beautiful reflection of our Father in Heaven. There can be noting more free than being you true self.

This Pesach, may we all experience a rooting out of the Chametz in our souls, the vocal minority that so often pushes us to do things that we know are not true to ourselves. And may we the hear the clarion message of the Matzah, the small flat bread that we often can’t hear because of the noise of the vocal minority.  May its call transform us into the free being we’re meant to be. And like Hashem did for our people 3,336 years ago, may He free us all this Pesach with the ultimate Redemption, the Final Freedom!

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s parsha Metzora, deal primarily with an affliction called tzara’at. As Nachmonides explains, this was not a typical form of leprosy (which could be healed easily with some Noni juice and a little ginko-biloba, the common cure for pretty much everything today) but  a spiritual ailment which manifested itself physically on the person’s body. This affliction was the result of committing one of several transgression, the most common being lashon hara, which is gossip and slander.

As part of the purification process, the metzorah is commanded to bring a number of items that symbolize messages he needs to inculcate. The one trait that characterizes any gossiper is arrogance, as this gives him the callousness to hurt other’s feelings. Therefore, the metzorah brings some hyssop branches, a lowly plant meant to remind the metzorah to become more humble. Additionally, he brings a piece of crimson wool, whose dye is made of a pigment from a lowly snail, which also reminds him to lower himself.

The third thing he brings is a piece of cedar wood, which is quite baffling, as the cedar tree is anything but lowly. Au contraire, it is a very tall tree reaching heights of 120- 180 feet tall! Rashi (in Arachin, 16A) explains that the cedar wood reminds the person of the haughtiness that he needs to purge from his character. But that leaves us with the question of why it is wrapped together with the hyssop that symbolizes the opposite pole

My Rebbi, Rabbi Shmuel Brazil, once offered the following explanation, which is very instructive for anyone on a pathway to personal betterment. There are two ploys used by the yetzer hara (the evil inclination, the little red guy in our heads with the pitchfork) to prevent us from growth. The first one he uses is inflating our ego to the point where we believe that we are just fine the way we are, and we don’t need to change anything in our lives. When we feel this way, we can come to the sin of slander. Such a situation needs a spiritual affliction, such as tzara’at, to wake us up to the reality that we do need to change. As far as the evil inclination is concerned, strategy #1 works just fine for most people, and for that reason most people live their lives without a constant, urgent drive to change.

But what does the evil inclination do when he bumps up against those individuals that are really bent on change? He changes gears, does a 180, makes a U-turn, flips a turn about, or if you have French in your blood, pulls a volte-face, but I think you get the point. Now he comes to that same person and tries to minimize him, put him down, and tell him that he is a nobody, he is weak, he can’t possibly change anyway so why try. Or he tells the person that they are so insignificant that what they do make no difference to G-d or to the world.

After a review of the two possible thought patterns that can deter a person from change, we understand what the cedar wood is doing in the metzorah’s purification process. He has two items (hyssop and crimson wool) to remind him to be humble, as arrogance led him to gossip and slander in the first place, and it is clear that he saw himself as above others. But there is still a fear that he will swing to the other extreme, and begin to say, “I’m just a nobody; my words don’t make a difference to anyone,” or, “I’m such a bad person, so steeped in my ego that I will never be able to really change for the better!” To counteract this, there is also a piece of a towering tree involved in his purification to remind him that he has unlimited potential, that he can grow and soar and ascend to heights he never fathomed reaching!

Parsha Summary 

Parshat Metzora begins with the sacrifices brought by the metzora upon the completion of his isolation and repentance process. He brings two birds to remind him that his excessive chirping like birds caused him to get tzara’at. (P.S. If you know of any metzoras, please send them to my house, we have a few birds that wake me up real early and I wouldn’t mind donating them to any local metzoras!) He also brings a piece of cedar wood (a very tall tree) to remind him of what his haughtiness caused, a hyssop (low bush) and a tongue of crimson wool (in Hebrew this translates into a word that also means worm) to remind him that he can remedy it by being humble like the hyssop and the worm. The metzora then waits another week, and brings a second round of sacrifices to the Temple, after which he is finally clean and pure, and he can go back to rejoin society – hopefully, a transformed man.

The torah next discusses how tzara’at can afflict a house. Although we explained above that tzara’at of the house was the first step to awakening someone to change, the commentators note that affliction of the house was actually a gift from G-d. When the Cannanites saw the Jews coming to conquer their land, they hid their money in the walls of their homes. Since part of the purification of a house with tzara’at involves cutting out the afflicted parts of the wall, the occupants would then discover the hidden treasures! If you are wondering why someone seems to get rewarded for sinning, I’m glad. A. Because you’re still reading, B. because you’re thinking critically about what your reading. Please go out, get an answer and email me back with it, or email me that you’ve given up, and I will send you the answer!

The last part of the Parsha deals with different kinds of discharges from the human body that are spiritually contaminating to different degrees, and the various purification processes used to rectify the contaminations. Being that today there is no tzara’at to keep us in check, let us try to be more vigilant of the way we talk about others, and ensure that our tongue is never a weapon, only a tool!

Quote of the Week: Honesty is the first chapter of the Book of Wisdom. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Random Fact of the Week: A blue whale’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle!

Funny Quip of the Week: A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.

Have a Relaxing Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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