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Soda Jerks, Pop Tarts and Coke Heads: The Choices of a Purple Generation

By Ilya Shapiro - April 26, 2007 12:00 AM

Ever since the 2000 elections, Americans have been fascinated by maps showing the split of this country into two competing camps: Republican Red America and Democratic Blue America. Especially when viewed through the lens of the winner-take-all state-by-state electoral college. In 2004, for example, John Kerry won the entire Northeast and West coast, four states in the upper Midwest, and nothing else.

County-by-county (or district-by-district) representations refine our understanding of these political snapshots, showing that, rather than being a polarized 50-50 nation, most of the country is actually variations on Purple America. This column staked its claim early on to that blended descriptor, as a way of identifying a certain subset of the wide swath of citizenry uncomfortable with the emerging red-and-blue geographical labels.

In any event, an unintended—but utterly amusing —consequence of our obsession with cartographical color-coding is that social scientists and cultural critics alike can now spread their message in a way that resonates with previously unreachable audiences. One such mapping project that I recently came across involves the eternal debate about what to call carbonated soft drinks—the term that unites Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, etc.—which is one that is almost as near to my heart as this whole Purple America business.

Growing up in Toronto, I was used to referring to all this "fizzy water" (as the Brits would say) as "pop." Having consumed plenty of 20th-century American literature—usually while sipping a Coca-Cola Classic—I figured that someone along the way had simply streamlined the wordy "soda pop" for the modern age.

Then, when I arrived in New Jersey for college, I heard everyone saying "soda." Interesting, said I, the budding sociologist, so that's one more difference between Canada and the U.S. (and one more Canadianism to excise from my vocabulary as I zealously strove for Americanness). Law school took me to Chicago, however—after a year in London, where I mostly drank fizzy water of a different sort—and what you order in Wrigley Field (if it's after the seventh inning and they're not serving Old Style) is again "pop." This is when I realized that there was something to the throw-away line I once heard that Canada was one big Minnesota—something aside from hockey and progressivism at least.

Then I moved to Mississippi, and was promptly faced with the issue of what kind of "coke" (lower-case) I wanted with my fried catfish. If I hadn't already known that this was the generic appellation in these parts—What kinda coke? Let me have a Fresca, my judge would say.—I would've been impressed at being offered the full range of the Coca-Cola Company's wares despite being pretty far from Atlanta.

Now I'm in Washington, DC, where the locals ask for soda but, being the nation's capital, it's not unusual to hear either pop or coke.

Not surprisingly, my personal story—more than being a writer's indulgence—parallels the findings of the "research" I linked to earlier, which is found at popvssoda.com. To wit: the Northeast and California/Arizona uses "soda"; the South, with the notable exceptions of (Yankeefied?) Virginia and North Carolina overwhelmingly prefers "coke" (which must frustrate Pepsi to no end, though there's an interesting story of how that New York-based company made inroads in the South by focusing on the rising black consumer); and the rest of the country—with a few exceptions I'll get to shortly—might as well go off and join Canada.

The iconoclastic islands include southern Florida—which of course isn't the South but rather a mix of Havana and Brooklyn—and eastern Wisconsin (rebellion against Chicago?). And then there's a rather large area straddling the Illinois-Missouri border around St. Louis. Clearly, as the saying goes, "further research is needed."

You can see other blips on the detailed county-by-county map, but I remember enough of my junior-year statistics course to say with confidence that the n value there is so low as to make the findings statistically insignificant. (Moreover, any first-year graduate student would tell you that the survey itself is flawed because it only reflects the responses of those who find the website and choose to participate—with all the multiple and joke respondees that method empowers, and all the people it undercounts.)

There may be something more to the regional differences in how we order our soft drinks, perhaps one that dovetails with the cottage industry of pundits advising one political party or the other to either broaden its appeal or stop trying to be what it's not to avoid withering away to a Whiggish rump. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that a Diet Dr. Pepper by any other name would surely taste as sweet.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer who writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS Daily.com.

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5 Comments

Old News
This is very old news. You can see that this chart has not been updated for over 4 years.
This topic has been discussed on numerous other fora.

And, besides, the correct term is "tonic:.

what??!!....by northernguy
I thought everbody in the world, across all languages, cultures, regions, relgions, occupations and pastimes referred to it as _pop_.

As you can see, I am northernguy

Perhaps that explains it.

No Subject
Here in the panhandle of Florida, we (or I, and everybody else I know, at least) actually do refer to any carbonated beverage as a "coke," unless we are in the process of ordering or asking for a specific soft drink.

Soda
And other in the mid-west referre to them as Soda...

can be insightful
Its ok to interchange "pop" or "soda", those are normal. But its stupid to call it "coke". Coke is an actual brand. Do southerners also refer to all cars as "chevy"?

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