Monday, June 15, 2015

The Story of Bikini Cola



It is April 23, 1985, and Coca-Cola had just made the worst mistake in its history, New Coke. The other cola companies were smelling the blood in the water after the undaunted giant of cola had stabbed themselves directly in the heart. This included one upstart which had just incorporated on February 4, 1985 as the Bikini Beverage Corporation in Gardena, California. This new cola truly had only one advantage against the big three through incorporating the age old adage of sex sells to grab attention with a bikini clad model on every can. This brand bore the rather obvious name of Bikini Cola.

Bikini Cola was the brainchild of Merle Stanfield, former manager of Royal Crown Beverage in Los Angeles, listed as President of the company, and Richard Sheen, who had owned a bottling company in South Korea, as General Manager. After seeing how Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola shared a monopoly on the cola market in his home country Sheen had decided to come to the “land of consumption” to try to carve out his own slice of the cola pie. Entering a market with seventeen national, and three hundred private label, colas meant that Bikini Cola was swimming upstream before it even got off the ground.

Richard Sheen didn’t decide to create his cola on a whim; he studied the beverage market of the United States for five years before deciding to create Bikini Cola. With a population of two hundred and forty million in the US as compared to the forty million in South Korea at the time, added to the fact that the US economy was forty times larger than South Korea, helped fuel Mr. Sheen’s determination to take a chance at trying to grab a piece of the cola market for himself from the big dogs. Of course everything in the sales market depends upon giving the customer what they want thus Mr. Sheen decided to set himself apart by appealing to the baser instincts of the cola buying public. He was aiming for the fifteen to twenty five, obviously male, age demographic, which is only natural.


Unfortunately there was a technological issue with his idea of producing photo realistic images of bikini clad women onto beverage cans at the time. The current process of printed aluminum cans just couldn’t reproduce the effect he wanted to produce so he turned to American Fuji Seal Inc. in Anaheim, California who had recently developed a process to apply plastic labels to bottles and cans. The artwork was printed on flat plastic film which was then rolled into a cylinder and slipped over the can after which were processed through a heat tunnel to shrink the plastic label to the can. It was the same technology they were using for the protective seals on medicine bottles.


Today this is a common type of labeling; however, in 1985 Bikini Cola was the first to use this technology on a mass market canned soda. I admit, these were so well done that without knowing that this process was used you really don’t notice at first glance that these are using plastic labels, unlike today when they are quite obvious. There was only one important drawback to using this process, and it may have been one that led to the demise of this brand. This new process cost the company more money per can to produce, and they passed this expense on to the customers. It’s not exactly a smart move to charge customers more money for your fledgling cola right out of the gate no matter how much of an interesting novelty you have created.


Then there is the obvious issue, with this being the "enlightened" eighties, of sexism represented by using an objectified woman as the main selling point of your new soft drink. Believe it or not the creators were actually thinking about the implications that would arise concerning the selling subject of their soda; however, when test marketing produced the statistic of forty percent of Bikini Cola was being purchased by women, and the stated reason being the artwork, their fears were soothed enough to take the obvious gamble. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a backlash from the Women’s Movements. In July 1985 Richard Sheen was asked about the response by a Philadelphia reporter, and his response was that all of the negative letters he received concerning the product were from the East Coast while he hadn’t received any letters from the West Coast. This he just wrote this off as being a product of the differences between the culture and attitudes between the two.

This brings us to the main selling point of Bikini Cola, the model, who is listed on the can as Ginger. In fact her full name is Ginger Miller, a model who was convinced by her friends to take the gig in order to get some exposure. Apparently it worked as she became Pet of the Month in the September 1986 issue of Penthouse magazine, and Pet of the year in 1989. She is also known for being an amateur wrestler both in the ring and in mud. She also appeared in a TV movie called “A Bunny’s Tale”, a Penthouse video, and a few smaller soft core porn films. Obviously having only one model on your can would eventually get boring so the company was holding Bikini Cola sponsored bikini contests in order to sign up other models. Their goal was to rotate models on the cans every three months in order to keep their customers coming back for more Bikini Cola. The fact that there is only one model known on these cans speaks volumes about its longevity.

Bikini Cola was being produced on contract by Royal Crown Beverage of Los Angeles, and being distributed in Southern California, Nevada and Hawaii. The company had hopes of going national in the middle of 1986. The company also wasn’t planning on stopping with a cola; there were plans to create Diet Bikini Cola to be introduced in early 1986 along with Bikini Root Beer, Bikini Lemon-Lime, and Bikini Orange after that. Whether it was the higher cost of producing the cans, the backlash from the Women’s Movement, or just the fact that they were an upstart in a world dominated by the big three cola giants consisting of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Royal Crown Cola the brand doesn’t seem to have actually made it out of 1985.


A quote from Jessee Meyers, editor of the Beverage Digest newsletter, given at the time may sum up everything that went wrong for Bikini Cola, “On the long list of things the world is waiting for, the product Bikini Cola would probably be found at the end of the list, or on the page that is crossed out. Soda can’t compete with Playboy.” The legacy of this short lived brand’s selling point still leads these cans to bring more money on eBay than the cans from its rivals at the time, proving yet again that sex sells. So drink Bikini Cola to “Get that Bikini Feeling”, and, to steal a line from the old Betty Pages fanzine, good night Ginger Miller wherever you are.

A Bikini Cola can

4 comments:

  1. Great retrospective....Ginger Miller is now a married mom of 2 and is a bass player in a rock band. Congratulations, Ginger ! I wonder if the soda still has fizz..............LOL

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    Replies
    1. That's nice to hear, she was my dream girl!

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  2. Great retrospective....Ginger Miller is now a married mom of 2 and is a bass player in a rock band. Congratulations, Ginger ! I wonder if the soda still has fizz..............LOL

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  3. as a collector are the can worth anything?

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