July, Friday 13, 1984. Nineteen-year-old Terry Wallis and a friend drive through a railing on an Arkansas road, falling 25 feet into a creek. The friend dies. Wallis lives, but is in a coma.
June 12, 2003. Nineteen years later, Wallis wakes up. His first word, on seeing his mother before him in an Arkansas hospital room, is ‘mom’. His second is ‘Pepsi’.
It could be straight off a storyboard for an ad film. But this is the real thing.
Today, a fully conscious 38-year-old Wallis still believes Ronald Reagan is President. He has been reunited with his wife, who has been waiting for him “for better or for worse, thick and thin”. He has seen his 19-year-old daughter — his wife was expecting a child that fateful Friday — for the first time. But in a testament to one of America’s most powerful icons (though Coca-Cola may not agree), the memory of a once-beloved beverage is top of the mind even in a body comatose for two decades.
‘Milk’ and ‘dad’ were words that followed from Wallis’ lips soon after. His recovery has been hailed as a “miracle” by his parents, who had been taking their now quadriplegic son home every few weeks to keep alive the bonds. For a few years now, Wallis has been communicating with his family in his own way, grunting or even blinking his eyes. He hopes now to make a recovery, but the only therapy he has received so far has been for speech. Lying at the Stone County Rehabilitation Center, he has vowed to walk again for his daughter’s sake.
If the soft-drink giant decided to dip into this tragic-comic slice of life, it wouldn’t be the first time personal misfortune has been convenient fodder for the cola wars. In 1993, Michael Jackson, one of the most expensive brand ambassadors of the cola, bailed out of a Pepsi-backed concert in Bangkok, pleading dehydration. Four words across half a page in the next day’s paper created advertising history: Dehydrated'… There’s always Coke.
And in 1984, if Pepsi was on the tip of everyone’s taste-buds, Jackson had much to do with it. That was the year after the brand signed the Thriller man on in what was then rumoured to be the most expensive deal of all time.
The ad line switched from ‘Pepsi Now!’ to ‘Pepsi the Choice of a New Generation’.
Jacko was to star in the first two commercials of this campaign, which sent Coke scurrying for cover. The effect was clear on the competition. Coca-Cola’s response to the growing threat was to launch New Coke the next year, with a new formula. After bombing miserably, Coke Classic was back, to combat the Pepsi punch.
Ignorant of the advertising lessons the marketing gurus have learnt since 1984, Wallis sticks to what he knows best. “He loves Pepsi,” recounts his mother Angilee.
Maybe that’s why his mind chose to remember that word of all others. But slowly, Wallis, whose short-term memory has been affected and is possibly suffering brain damage, is regaining control of the language.
Life has thrown him a chance to catch up on the nearly 20 years he missed. And maybe this time around, memory will choose to hold on to another flavour.