Have you ever been “349ed”? Have you heard of this Filipino slang before? Its origin story was due to a marketing blunder—one that would be the deadliest in history.
Pepsi launched “Number Fever” in 1992, a lottery game that a lot of Filipinos hoped to win because it was a chance to become a millionaire. The correct 3-digit number combination in their Pepsi bottle cap would be the financial miracle to their woes. However, Pepsi mistakenly printed 800,000 winning caps; leading to lawsuits, riots, and deaths.
In February 1992, PepsiCo announced that they would be running a campaign in Manila, Philippines wherein they would print numbers between 001 and 999 under select bottle caps of their sodas. There would be nightly announcements on the Channel 2 News TV station to declare that particular day’s winning number. The standard prize started at around a couple hundred pesos then for the grand prize, would go up to one million pesos.
This was a glimmer of hope, a chance of a lifetime that the people at that time did not want to miss. Everyone tried to get their hands on a Pepsi bottle cap, leading to an increase in Pepsi’s market share from 4% to 25% in just three months.
Pepsi sought the help of an outside marketing firm in generating a list of random numbers due to the high demand for winning caps. The list of numbers was securely hidden in a safe deposit box until the list was ready to be put into a computer system for the printing of the bottle caps. Everything was going good so far; from its launch in February to before the chaos in May of the same year. As many as 51,000 lucky Pepsi drinkers had won prizes worth 100 pesos while 17 had won the grand prize.
By the end of May, things took a drastic and deadly turn when the computer system involved in printing the bottle caps had a very significant and critical glitch. Instead of only printing two winning caps, it ended up printing 800,000. By the time that Pepsi knew about it, it was already too late.
On the night of May 25, Filipino households were tuned in to the Channel 2 News, holding on to their respective bottle caps, hoping that their number would be called. Finally, it was announced: 349. It was that night’s winning number, one that would represent the largest prize in the sweepstakes. One household rejoiced as they were the lucky winner. But so did the other household, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another. This joyous moment was short-lived because when they went to their nearest Pepsi plant to claim their prize, they were surprised to see plenty more people doing the same.
The number of people at the Pepsi plants grew, and by the wee hours of the morning, Pepsi had finally realized the problem that they had. Pepsi execs deliberately talked about what went wrong and discovered that while only two #349 contained the required security number to make those caps the actual winners, the people were not likely to check the security codes. Hundreds of thousands of people had the winning cap containing “349.”
It was decided by Pepsi executives at 3 in the morning that they wouldn’t be able to pay out a million pesos to all the winners—which would have cost around 16 billion USD. As a form of “goodwill gesture,” they ended up paying some of the winners a consolation prize of around 18 to 20 USD. This cost the company close to $10 million—they only set aside $2 million for the prizes.
While some of the people accepted the consolation prize, some were angry. Very angry. Security guards in the Quezon City factory were seen throwing glass bottles at the people and policemen were charging them with their shields. More guards came at the scene armed with automatic weapons. A manager tried to escape the factory, but protestors threw stones at him. Hours later, there would be a bomb threat.
The source of the error turned out to be how 349, supposedly a nonwinner code in the production, was mistakenly chosen as the winner for the contest extension. The crowns from the extension were not supposed to be honored; however, this was not enough for the protestors as they continued to rally outside of Pepsi plants.
The Pepsi executives were scared for their lives. One of the marketing directors would say, “We were eating death threats for breakfast.” They now had to have round-the-clock bodyguards with them and had to vary their office hours as well as their travels. The company would end up withdrawing all but two expatriates, leaving an official in charge who had experience in Beirut, Lebanon.
Pepsi would end up paying a fine of P150,000 to the Department of Trade and Industry for deviating from the promotional campaign that the government had approved.
Pepsi delivery trucks were the frequent casualties in the war against the soft drink manufacturer. As many as 37 trucks were overturned, burned, stoned, or vandalized by the protestors. They took to the streets with their signs to voice their anger over the company’s negligence.
Several factions bore out of the protests, including Coalition 349, which would be led by Vicente del Fierro Jr. They took a systematic approach in shaming Pepsi to pay up. Paciencia Salem, a protestor whose husband died of heart failure while taking part in the protests, said that the company will never see relief. “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. That’s why we’re fighting.”
A popular conspiracy theory was that Pepsi itself staged the attacks to frame the protestors and terrorists. A police officer allegedly filed a report that the bombings and riots were deliberate acts of self-sabotage by Pepsi against itself. A man confessed to being a Pepsi security guard, told about how he knew three mercenaries who were wired by the company to damage their property. This would shed the anti-Pepsi groups in a negative light; thus, harming their position in court.
This would, later on, be discredited.
A plausible theory was made by then-senator Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, suggesting that rival companies of Pepsi were behind the attacks.
The 349 Alliance was formed consisting of the people that were cheated by Pepsi. They organized boycotts, protests, and numerous lawsuits. “Most protests were peaceful, but three Pepsi employees were killed by a grenade thrown into a warehouse in Davao, and a mother and child were killed by a grenade thrown at a Pepsi truck.” As much as 37 Pepsi trucks were pushed over, stoned, or burned.
Other victims would be a school teacher and a 5-year-old girl while five others were injured. Aniceta Rosario was on her way to a sari-sari store when a Pepsi delivery truck arrived. Someone threw a homemade bomb that bounced off the truck and detonated; thus, killing Rosario and the young girl nearby.
Raul, Rosario’s widower, didn’t speak for days after her death. He would eventually report how Pepsi invited him to an office where executives offered him P50,000 not to sue. In anger, he shouted at them, “My wife wouldn’t have died! It’s because of the 349 incident, because you cheated the people!” However, after receiving advice from friends, Raul would return to take the money.
This incident would go on to be the deadliest marketing disaster in history. Pepsi tried to repair the damage by changing the winning number. It was reported in newspapers the following day that the real winner was 134, which further added to the confusion.
The protests would eventually die out, but lawsuits would continue for years. The Pepsi Number Fever even reached the Supreme Court in 2006 as hundreds of civil suits and thousands of criminal fraud complaints were filed. The Supreme court would end up ruling Pepsi as neither liable for the misprinted prizes nor for further damages. “Let’s never speak of this again. The issues surrounding the 349 incident have been laid to rest and must no longer be disturbed in this decision.”
Another Pepsi Blunder
Pepsi would have another marketing blunder—this time, in the United States, by having Kendall Jenner lead the Black Lives Matter movement, armed with a can of the fizzy soda.
The protests in the ad were portrayed in a way that was a far cry from the actual demonstrations that had been going on at that time all over the United States. The scene that caused the most uproar was when Jenner, seemingly to defuse the tension, walked up to a police officer and handed him a Pepsi. He took a sip as a woman snapped photos and everyone else cheered.
The ad was met with widespread condemnation as it trivialized the importance and significance of the issues and why the people took to the streets in the first place. The reference to BLM and anti-police violence protests, all just to sell soft drinks, was a glaring misstep.
"Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position."
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