Number Fever: The Pepsi Contest That Became a Deadly Fiasco

www.bloomberg.com
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Decades ago, a marketing stunt promised Philippine soda drinkers a chance at a million pesos. But an error at a bottling plant led to 600,000 winners—and to lawsuits, rioting, and even deaths.
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Marily So, a woman in her early fifties with graying hair, runs a sari-sari store out of her one-room home in a concrete building beside a railway track in Manila. In the steamy heat of a summer afternoon, shirtless children appear at her window clutching coins. With a kind smile, she serves them warm bottles of water and Royal Tru, one of a few sodas she displays alongside tiny shampoo sachets and single cigarettes. There's one brand she refuses to sell. If someone asks for a Pepsi, her expression sours. For more than 28 years she's nurtured bitter resentment against the company. "I didn't have a job back then," she says, starting in on her Pepsi story.

It was 6 p.m. on May 25, 1992, and So was among the 70% of Filipinos watching the Channel 2 evening news. Then 23, she was living in a wooden shack beside the tracks with four children under 5. Pepsi was about to announce the winning number in a promotion that had gripped the Philippines' 65 million people. Her husband, a house painter, had spent their last centavos on special "Number Fever" bottles of Pepsi, hoping one of the three-digit numbers printed on the underside of the caps would match one of the winning numbers locked inside a vault.

Marily So in her sari-sari store. Photographer: Geric Cruz for Bloomberg Businessweek

Across the Philippines' 7,641 islands, ads had promised people "You could be a millionaire." A million pesos, about $68,000 in today's dollars, was the largest prize available, 611 times the country's average monthly salary at the time. The published odds of winning that amount were 28.8 million to 1, but Pepsi had already minted 18 millionaires. They appeared in its ads, real as day. One, a bus driver named Nema Balmes, became known as Mrs. Pepsi after joking that drinking cola put her husband "in the mood."

Number Fever was the brainchild of an executive named Pedro Vergara, a Chilean who worked for the promotions department in New York.…
Jeff Maysh
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