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Number 349 - The Story of the Filipino Pepsi Riots

by Inina Kachelmeier 4 months ago in Historical

How a simple promotional campaign ended in five deaths

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

In February of 1992 Pepsi Phillipines launched the Number Fever promotion - a rewards campaign in which they printed a three digit number and a security code onto the backs of Pepsi brand bottle caps in the Phillipines. Seems innocent right? This is the story of how that simple rewards campaign turned into riots, overturned trucks, five deaths and years of litigation for the soda giant.

At first, the promotional campaign was wildly successful for the company. Sales went up by 40% and Pepsi’s market share increased from 4 to 24.9%.

Then, on May 25th, 1992 Pepsi announced the winners of its Number Fever promotion. Most winners would win small rewards of one hundred pesos (roughly $5). But with a little luck, anyone could win one million pesos (roughly $37,000). What Pepsi didn’t realize was that because of a computer error, everyone became the grant prize winner.

Pepsi had intended to print the winning number on only two bottle caps. However, due to a computer error eight hundred thousand copies of the winning number 349 were in circulation. The fact that only two of the eight hundred thousand had a security code mattered little to Filipinos who, after watching the nightly news, were shocked and elated to have won the grand prize.

Thousands of Filipinos arrived at Pepsi plants to collect their money but were turned away for not having the correct security code - even though Pepsi had not previously stated anything about a security code in its contest rules.

Many of the Filipinos were probably like Victoria Angelo who, as reported in a Los Angeles Times story from 1993, screamed "we are a millionare!" after watching the nightly news. Angelo had five children and a husband who worked for $4 a day. She had dreamed about how the prize winnings could change her life.

Pepsi ultimately agreed to pay $18 to each winner. A total of $10 million was paid in compensation to over half a million people. Pepsi had originally planned to spend just $2 million on the promotional campaign.

Many angry citizens rejected this gesture of "good will" and instead turned to organized boycotts. Some threw Molotov cocktails into Pepsi headquarters and overturned between 34 to 37 trucks.

Citizens even forming a consumer group called the 349 Alliance - which organized protests outside of Pepsi headquarters and Filipino government offices.

Pepsi President Christopher Sinclair was so shook that he flew to Manila and is described by an aide as pleading with then President Fidel V. Ramos for help.

The victims of the more violent protests were largely regular people. One Molotov cocktail bounced off a truck and killed a school teacher and her child. During another protest a grenade launched into a Davaho warehouse killed three workers.

According to an article on Mental Floss, one protester named Paciencia Salem is quoted as saying "Even if I die here, my ghost will come to fight Pepsi...It is their mistake. Not our mistake. And now they won't pay."

Speculations emerged in 1993 that bombings and riots were not at the hands of protesters, but had been organized by Pepsi itself in an effort to label the protestors as terrorists and preserve their position in court.

These speculations erupted after Artemio Sacaguing, chief of the countries organized crime unit of the National Bureau of Investigation, published a brief in which a security guard working for Pepsi reported that he knew of three individuals hired by the company to damage Pepsi property. Senator Macapagal Arroyo discredited this theory, but suggested that rival bottling companies may have been responsible for some of the damage.

The incident resulted in 689 civil lawsuits and 5200 complaints. In 2006 the Supreme Court in the Phillipines ended the legal debate when it determined that Pepsi was not required to payout the winning amount to prize winners.

This is the story of how a simple number - 349 - resulted in widespread turbulence. It's a cautionary tale of how stoking peoples hopes, a hope tucked away in bottle cap after bottle cap, can result in broken dreams, overturned trucks, and lawsuits.

Further Resources:

Rossen, Jake. "The Computer Error That Led to a Country Declaring War on Pepsi" Mental Floss, 27 September 2018. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/558202/pepsi-number-fever-promotion-failure-philippines

Times, L. "Blunder turns to anti-Pepsi fever as FILIPINOS demand their contest prizes" Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1992. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1993-07-27-1993208127-story.html

Teves, Oliver. "A PEPSI GIVEAWAY, GONE WRONG - The Washington Post." Washington Post, 29 July 1993. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/business/1993/07/29/a-pepsi-giveaway-gone-wrong/1a6af4b1-2b6f-4e5a-9b1d-5dc6799ac2af/

Historical
Inina Kachelmeier
Inina Kachelmeier
Read next: River Nile
Inina Kachelmeier

I have worked abroad as an English teacher for the past 3 years. I worked in South Korea and in Laos.

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