The Tall, Cold Tale of the Big Gulp

Thanks to 7-Eleven, large will never be the same

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The average American citizen will drink 44 gallons of soft drinks this year, and a good many of them will head off to the local 7-Eleven to fill up. In fact, 7-Eleven dispenses 38 million gallons of soda per annum. Why do so many of us wind up at 7-Eleven for a soda? Two reasons. The first is that 25 percent of us live within a mile of one of the stores.

The second, of course, is the Big Gulp.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

So far as plastic cups go, it's easily the most famous one on Earth. It enjoys an entry in the Urban Dictionary ("Legendary drink from 7-Eleven"). It was the nickname for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's restrictive soft-drink legislation (it didn't pass). But the Big Gulp's enduring claim to fame is the fact that it was first: The 32-ounce cup, introduced 39 years ago, opened the door to the era of supersize portions. 

"It was very significant," said Kara Nielsen, culinary director for Sterling-Rice Group, a marketing firm that specializes in food brands. "The Big Gulp represents a point where something changed in a radical way—how much soda we were serving."

American drink sizes have been so huge for so long that nearly nobody can recall a time when restraint was the rule. Until 1955, a bottle of Coca-Cola was a mere 6.5 ounces. But in 1976, Big Gulp made the splash heard round the world.

It all started when Coke experimented with a new, 32-ounce cup. One of the vendors who received a shipment was Dennis Potts, merchandise manager for 7-Eleven in Southern California. Though Potts initially thought that the cup was "too damn big," he sent them off to one of his Orange Country locations. In a week, 500 cups had sold out.

Seeing a trend in the making, 7-Eleven not only rolled out the big cups systemwide (the Stanford Agency, its in-house creative group, cooked up the name), it's been making them bigger ever since. The Super Big Gulp (44 oz.) appeared in 1986; the Double Gulp (64 oz.) in 1989; the X-Treme Gulp (52 oz.) in 2001; and finally, in 2006, came the Team Gulp. It holds 128 ounces—one gallon—of soda.

Not surprisingly, the Big Gulp has become a lightning rod in the public obesity debate, the unanswerable question being whether 7-Eleven induced Americans to drink more soda or merely gave them a convenient vessel for the soda they wanted to drink anyway. "The bigger context here is about America being the land of abundance," Nielsen said. "It's our birthright, and it quickly becomes about the amount of food we have on our shelves. The Big Gulp fits into these long-standing notions."

Thanks to 7-Eleven's cup design, the Big Gulp fits in your car's drink holder, too. The one place it won't fit is the average adult stomach, which holds only 30 ounces.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.