The Max Headroom Incident
By: Chris Darkes - June 2, 2015
I recently began reading the book For God, Country, and Coca-Cola I received for Christmas from my girlfriend’s parents. The book tells the story of how America’s favorite drink came to be. Its weird to think a pharmacist, John Pemberton, began serving his concoction as a tonic for ill patients and spun into the biggest brand on the planet. The absolute power their marketing team had/has over advertisers, television cartoons, and the movie industry is impressive. This was probably the most prevalent in the 1980’s during the famous cola wars.
In 1985, Coke’s Atlanta-based headquarters were reeling from the recent market share gain of Pepsi, who just came out with a crushing commercial of people taking blind taste tests. All of them preferring the sweeter, more syrupy Pepsi to the “old” standard of soft drink (Coca-Cola). The move was a winner for Pepsi and many considered it the nail in Coke’s coffin. This lead Coke to create New Coke and teamed up with one of the 80’s most fleeting characters named Max Headroom. The slogan “Catch The Wave” was born.
Max Headroom became an obscure staple of the 80’s along with things like Domino’s the Noid and the Garbage Pail Kids. Max Headroom’s TV series was in full force. Posters, Pez dispensers, and Halloween masks were made. For that short period of time you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing his image. Which leads us to…
November 22, 1987
During a nightly news broadcast in Chicago, the screen went black for fifteen seconds before returning. Except the image didn’t turn back to the show. Instead, it was the image of a man wearing a Max Headroom mask standing in front of a garage door-like sheet of corrugated metal. No audio was heard besides a buzzing noise of interruption. The feed was cut after engineers scrambled to switch the frequency over to the John Hancock Tower’s transmitter. The news anchors were puzzled, before returning back to the newscast.
Later that night the real fun began. During a PBS broadcast of Doctor Who,the feed was again cut, only this time the stunt went on longer and the audio in full (somewhat crackling) volume. The figure decked out in full Max Headroom wardrobe. He begins to jump around and trash talk a WGN news anchor. He then holds up a Pepsi can, crushing it, and creepily states “Catch the Wave…” in the same mannerisms as the original Max Headroom, before laughing like a maniac.
He exclaims he made a “giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds.” The antics go on for a good 90 seconds which include but were not limited to: humming, rambling, glove throwing, profanity, and butt spanking. By the time you tried to figure out what was happening, the culprit unplugged his signal, and Doctor Who resumed. The next day the media had a frenzy over the incident. CBS ran a piece on the evening news. Not long after a competing station on NBC inserted clips into sportscaster Mark Giangreco’s piece.
Being way too young to remember the incident, I can’t remember the reaction. But being from a suburb of Chicago, I remember every now and then news stations would play a clip into one of their segments for laughs. The most fascinating fact is that the person who hijacked the signal was never caught. Perhaps that person has not come forward this many years later for a variety of reasons. It’s more cryptic to keep that man behind the curtain. Maybe he didn’t want to end up the same way as the 1986 signal hijacker of HBO who called himself “Captain Midnight.” That person was found and plead guilty.
Its always fun now and then to go back and watch the video. I’m grateful someone put that up on YouTube to jog my memory of the bizarre incident. Every time I catch a Coca-Cola can placed next to a Pepsi can, a part of me always thinks back to that guy dancing and saying “Catch The Wave.” That may be the only time you’ll ever see a Pepsi can and Coke can on the same screen together. The two companies probably have a clause stating not to place them directly next to each other on aisle shelves. Next time you’re at the grocery store check that out.