Martial Arts and the Pepsi Challenge
Back when I was a little younger, Pepsi-Cola had a brilliant marketing campaign called the Pepsi Challenge. What they did was they invited people to participate in a blind taste test comparing Pepsi to its biggest rival, Coca Cola. At the time Coca Cola was king, but Pepsi had started making headway into Coke’s market share. The challenge went like this: Pepsi and Coke were placed side by side in unmarked containers and consumers were asked to take a sip to determine which tasted better. The results were overwhelmingly in Pepsi’s favor. Time and time again people chose the taste of Pepsi over Coke, and a marketing phenomenon had begun. Ask anyone over the age of 40, and they’ll remember the popular commercial, and maybe even tell you they had conducted the taste test themselves.
Coke got nervous. So much so that they decided to tinker with their brand, and started the development of New Coke. New Coke had less of a bite, and was a little sweeter than original Coke. Kind of like Pepsi. Coke answered the Pepsi challenge with a huge marketing campaign for their new, “ improved “ version of the original, New Coke. It flopped. Famously. Coke loyalists shouted from the rooftops the indignity forced upon them, and demanded the old formula be re- introduced to the marketplace. Suddenly, Classic Coke was born, and Coke loyalists were rewarded for their efforts. New Coke was relegated to the scrapheap, and now can only be found in someone’s Coca-Cola memorabilia collection.
Apparently, where the taste test favored Pepsi was largely due to sample size. A small taste was initially more pleasing, probably because Pepsi is a little sweeter. However, when a person had to drink the entire 12oz can, the flavor of Coke actually held up better. At least to Coke enthusiasts anyway. So it seems that Coke got all nervous for nothing, and has still maintained the marketshare of the soda world, because they maintained its original formula. Were there some people who “converted” to Pepsi due to the Pepsi Challenge? Sure. In the end, the tried and true formula kept its place on top of the mountain.
What’s this have to do with the martial arts? A lot. Every so often, about every decade or so, a new martial arts style, training method, or system comes walking down the parade route as the next big thing. In the 50’s Judo was all the rage, in the 60’s Karate had its turn, in the 70’s it was Kung Fu, ( boxing had its heyday too). The 80’s brought Ninjitsu, ( thanks to the Ninja Turtles ). The 80’s also saw a seismic shift in the target demographic for martial arts schools. What once was an activity for adults was being marketed to children and the ways and methods of which martial arts was taught changed dramatically. The rank of Black belt was once considered a sizeable accomplishment was now being worn by children as young as the age of eight, and given out to some in as little as 18 months worth of practice. By marketing to children, the martial arts industry sweetened their product, and shortened the sample size to get to Black belt. This new brand way of Karate training was winning its own version of the Pepsi Challenge.
Defenders of this new brand would state the many character benefits children had gained through their practice, as a means of making up for some of the physical requirements the rank used to stand for. I agree completely that the martial arts when started at an early age can have a dramatic positive effect. However, if the product is “too sweet”, and children are being rewarded at times for effort that quite frankly is and should be the minimum standard, the arts themselves, and the schools themselves won’t stand the test of time. As time has proven, have this happen in Karate schools for a couple of decades, and martial arts has now became something that the general public views as a children’s activity. Most karate studios have become viewed as a newly developed term, the Belt Factory.
In the 90’s MMA became all the rage. Karate was something kids did, like soccer, but adults who wanted the “real thing “ started training in disciplines that were being showcased in these cage matches. People were fed up with the commercialization of the martial arts, and now believed in the old school challenge of put up or shut up. No longer could you hide behind a rank. Karate ranks were viewed as a joke by many, and the respect for them was lost. Deservedly so for some. Martial arts observers would think that only If your art worked in the ring, then whatever methods you used to be successful must be the “right” way. Traditional martial arts and their inherent ways of Budo ( the mindset of the warrior, which included a high level of respect for their teachers, the basic tenets that should go hand in hand with martial arts training, like respect, honor, and integrity), disappeared. Going to an MMA fight was like watching rival street gangs fight, with representatives from each school in the crowd acting like rabid sports fans and showing very little respect for one another. Traditional martial artists viewed participants in MMA and their constituents as thugs. Purists who knew the original formula was being lost because the pendulum swung the other way decided to bring some of that toughness back to their schools, if they had ever let it go in the first place. Are karate daycare centers still prevalent? Yes. Has the pendulum swung back a little more towards the center? Yes, and as it should be.
Early on in MMA, Brazilian JuJitsu was the star of the show, and now Judo stars ( former Olympians ) , as well as Karate stars are now getting their chance to shine in the ring as well. Do you see a pattern here? I do. When the general public sees or hears a small sample size of what the latest training craze is, people interested in martial arts flock to the “New Discipline” faster than Rhonda Rousey could make me tap out. Thing is, the “New Discipline” isn’t really new at all. The champions in the ring today tend to have quite a pedigree of traditional martial arts training. The really good ones, although few and far between, also bring with them the high character and respect that should go hand in hand with that level of skill.
Martial arts should be for the masses. I believe it can change lives. I believe it has the power to improve people, and bring structure, discipline, focus, self-control and confidence to their lives. Does everyone with an interest in martial arts need to be the next cage fighting champion? No. Could that same person learn Traditional martial arts and become effective at self-defense, while also gaining the aforementioned benefits? Yes.
People aren’t as easily fooled anymore. When a prospective parent of a student comes into our school one of the first questions they ask is about our methods of testing. They are very leery of having their children join a “Belt Factory”. While we try to sweeten the initial process of training by testing for stripes along the path from one rank to the next, I don’t believe in overdoing it by having special awards given out every week, just to recognize someone for doing something they’re supposed to do anyway. My goal is to reward students for their efforts at first, and then to guide them to a place where the discipline and skill gained from practice is its own reward. If a car is broken, we’re happy when it gets fixed, but we don’t need to celebrate every time it starts after that.
If when I teach someone they leave my class with a sense of pride and accomplishment for well placed and focused effort, I know I am serving a purpose more valuable than just teaching someone to defend themselves.
When you’re teaching something that has had a tried and true formula for a very long time, It’s best not to tinker too much with it. – Jim Peacock 3/31/2016