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Elon Musk and the hardcore cult of Diet Coke

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Elon Musk, the world’s richest human, might be completely unrelatable in most ways — who among us can buy a $44 billion company on a whim or build a rocket ship to Mars because they liked reading science fiction as a kid? But, hey, he’s got at least one thing in common with the common man.

Musk on Monday tweeted a photo of his nightstand, which bore an odd array of items including two non-firing replica guns, a Buddhist amulet and … four open cans of caffeine-free Diet Coke.

At least in his apparent affinity for the calorie-free cola, he is in vast company. Even those of us who never drink the stuff are familiar with Diet Coke People. They are a tribe whose allegiance to the product goes beyond brand loyalty and into something deeper. Sure, there are other ways people organize their identities around a preference for one thing over another: sports fans, maybe, or people with those Yeti stickers on their trucks. But Diet Coke drinkers differ in that they typically engage constantly with their beloved, aspartame-sweetened potion. Many imbibe all day, every day, empty cans or bottles collecting on their desktops and (like Musk) their bedsides.

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Diet Coke’s profile has ebbed and flowed since it was introduced in 1982. It has survived the four decades since, from its designation as the “in” quaff of Hollywood, through the rise of bottled water, past its association as a “mom drink.” Even now, its packaging defies the trend away from products labeled as “diet” (the currently preferred nomenclature is “zero sugar”) and concern about its health effects (a New York Times story last year about a former addict was titled “I Was Powerless Over Diet Coke”). Its can was briefly slenderized to better appeal to millennials; now it’s back to its regular shape.

In 2018, the New Yorker stuck a fork in the Diet Coke phenomenon, citing as evidence its unsavory acolytes, including former president Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. It is, the magazine declared, “the elixir of soft-bodied plutocrats desperate to shed their shady pasts and, possibly, a few pounds.”

Still, the cult persists, with fans on Facebook and Reddit sharing photos of their stocked fridges and Mormon mommies on TikTok showing off their “dirty” versions spiked with lime and coconut syrup.

Musk has previously proclaimed his love for the beverage. “Diet Coke is amazing, especially the soda fountain version at movie theaters with salt & butter popcorn,” he tweeted in June, following up by saying he doesn’t care “if it lowers my life expectancy.” And in April, he tweeted his plan to restore the drink’s original formula:

In a 2007 interview with Inc. magazine, Musk said that at one point he was downing eight cans of Diet Coke a day along with several large coffees, a regimen he ultimately had to cut back. “I got so freaking jacked that I seriously started to feel like I was losing my peripheral vision,” he said. “Now, the office has caffeine-free Diet Coke.”

Diet Coke might be a drink of the people — you can pick up a 24-pack for $12 — but even those who have the resources to drink anything else still choose it.

Trump reportedly drank as many as 12 cans a day, and he was said to have used a call button on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office primarily as a means of summoning a fresh glass. Ben Affleck is another high-profile fan; he’s been seen holding a can in paparazzi photos, and a video posted by his wife, Jennifer Lopez, revealed what looked like a soda fountain in his personal office that dispenses it (alongside, confusingly, Diet Pepsi, which the cult of DC famously abhors).

But the majority of the Diet Coke army are like people you know: the colleague who pops a can every afternoon, or the girlfriend whose car cupholder always contains at least one half-finished bottle. They will tell you how much better it is than Coke Zero or how McDonald’s sells the best version. They might have strong opinions about ice shape. Their bedside tables might not merit national attention — but they might look a lot like the one belonging to the richest guy on the planet.

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