Carbonated Campus Coup: The 1993 Penn State ‘Coke-In’
Back in 1992, then-Penn State President Joab Thomas signed a 10-year, $14 million deal with Pepsi to make it the exclusive provider of soft drinks on campus. Following a few extensions, the contract was set to expire in June 2022. However, the university renewed the contract for just one year to provide more time to negotiate a new deal…perhaps even with a new cola brand.
To the disappointment of Coke-heads all across campus, Penn State announced its intent to offer Pepsi a new contract last week. If accepted, the deal is expected to last through 2033. Sorry, Coke.
But, before shutting out Coca-Cola for another 10 years and forgetting about what almost was, it’s important to pay some respect.
For decades, Coke fanatics have been choking down rum and Pepsis at dorm pregames or trekking downtown to secure their daily Diet Coke. After years of soft drink slander and a one-sided cola war, Penn State’s diehard Coke community deserves its moment in the sun.
After all, Coke always goes down fighting.
A year after the original Penn State-Pepsi contract was inked in 1992, students banded together to stage a “Coke-In” on the steps of Schwab Auditorium to protest the new deal. The group behind this carbonated campus coup was Penn State’s Monty Python Society, a crew of students dedicated to comedy, lunacy, and anarchy.
But, as Penn State Monty Python Society Historian and Coke-In organizer Alyce Wilson remembers, the 1993 Coke-In never would’ve occurred if the group’s “Free The Hole” protest hadn’t taken place a few years earlier.
In the fall of 1990, Penn State’s Pollock Fields was undergoing construction to become a new office/classroom building. Bulldozers began digging a hole to make room for the building’s foundation around the same time the society was looking for an idea for its “Mystery Event” in the middle of October.
“We brainstormed ideas, writing them all on the chalkboard, and the ones that made us laugh the loudest stayed in the running,” Wilson recalled. “The essential joke — that we were demanding that the university free the hole which it was keeping in captivity behind a fence — was one that made us giggle every time it was mentioned.”
The crew got to work creating signs that read “Honk for the Hole” and “End Construction.” Alas, the “Free The Hole” protest was born.
“We know it’s not very likely that the construction will stop,” Wilson told The Daily Collegian in 1993. “We’re making a comment on the student protests and how ineffective they really are.”
Following the success of the “Free The Hole” protest, the society wanted to hold an even bigger and better event in 1993. After settling on a “Coke-In” protest, the society began attempting to secure a prime location on the steps of Schwab Auditorium, which meant filing official paperwork to acquire a permit.
“As we planned the event, stars in our eyes, we imagined the crowds of people we could draw,” Wilson said. “That, combined with press publicity, would undoubtedly lead to a surge in membership.”
Press releases, letters to the editor, flyers, buttons, and even a painted window in the HUB would hopefully generate enough publicity surrounding the event.
Unlike the previous protest, the society planned for the Coke-In to be largely scripted. The script included a sing-along to classic Coca-Cola tunes, a daytime candlelight vigil (which was a running joke within the society), and multiple speakers. The rally was then to be interrupted by a fictional student organization called the Students for Campus-Corporation Cooperation, which was in cahoots with the university.
Similar to the “Free The Hole” protest, the satirical Coke-In nodded to Penn State’s disregard for student concerns and the uselessness of speaking out against the university’s big-wigs. But while the first protest was born out of a few laughs and a love of pranks, the Coke-In aimed to promote the Monty Python Society and draw in new members.
Despite torrential downpours on the day of the rally, the Coke-In was a success. Student turnout was low due to the weather, but the presence of the press made up for it, as the society’s snarky event generated coverage in local publications.
“Still, the Coke-In went on in the inimitable, and inimical, satiric tradition of the disbanded British comedy troupe despite only a dozen or so people in the audience — mostly from the society,” the Centre Daily Times wrote following the rally.
For more information about the 1993 Coke-In, you can check out Alyce Wilson’s full documentary here.
“I think we achieved one of our perpetual goals: to bring some unexpected levity to the Penn State community,” Wilson said.
As for the Coke lovers, it’s not a goodbye, it’s a “see you later.”
All photos are courtesy of Alyce Wilson.
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