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Americans like to joke about the Cola Wars but for a generation of Filipinos the term is quite literal. In February 1992, Pepsi launched a promotion in the Philippines called Number Fever, where random digits printed on bottle caps could lead to cash prizes. For a while, everything was perfect. Some people won a hundred Philippine pesos or a little more; about a dozen were lucky enough to win a million pesos (equivalent to $40,000). All the while, Pepsi experienced record popularity in the archipelago nation.
That all came crashing down on the evening of May 25th. That’s when news anchors announced the number 349 as the key to the next one million peso award. Depending on what you read, 349 was only supposed to be printed on one or two Pepsi bottle caps. Definitely no more than two. Alas, due to an incredible mistake Pepsi eventually blamed on “computer error,” the number had been stamped on nearly 800,000 caps.
Thrilled winners from all over the Philippines descended upon Pepsi bottling plants the next morning, eager to claim their prizes. Elation turned to fury as Pepsi locked them out and refused to pay. It didn’t take long for riots to erupt (bottles and stones were launched with venom; one protester hurled a slab of cement at a security guard). Panicked, Pepsi executives held an emergency meeting where they decided to offer 500 pesos ($20) to anyone with a 349 cap. At the time, company figureheads were under the false impression that only a few thousand people had these caps, not over half a million.
The consolation offer had its takers but overall the Number Fever scandal galvanized Filipinos in a way other national controversies hadn’t. So protests were continuous, fervent, and large. Nearly 700 lawsuits and 5,000 criminal complaints were filed. Armed anti-Pepsi coalitions formed. And the violence escalated, punctuated by Molotov cocktails and other amateur explosives. Pepsi delivery trucks were hot targets. Upwards of 30 were smashed or bombed in some way.
Yes, there were casualties. On February 13th, 1993, two innocent bystanders (a teacher and a five year old child) were killed when a grenade bounced off a Pepsi truck in a Manila suburb. A few months later, three Pepsi employees died after a grenade was tossed into a Davao-based warehouse. Strangely, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times that July, Pepsi spokesperson Kenneth Ross angrily denied that any attacks against Pepsi had ever taken place while also affirming that the company “will not be held hostage [by] extortion and terrorism.”
Police arrested several members of the anti-Pepsi “hit squad” Alliance 349 in December 1993 on charges of causing harm and possessing explosives. The case against them fell apart when the star witness who helped facilitate these arrests revealed that he was a Pepsi employee who’d been asked to infiltrate Alliance 349. Furthermore, the witness insisted that Pepsi themselves were behind the truck bombings so Alliance 349 could be smeared as illegitimate. There was also a rumor that rival beverage companies had perpetrated the deadly violence.
The bombings eventually ceased and in 1994 21 year old Jowell Roque became the first person to win a lawsuit pertaining to Pepsi’s Number Fever. A court in the Bucalan capital of Malolos ruled that the beverage maker owed Roque 1.1 million pesos plus damages. Pepsi appealed, which is what they did when even the tiniest pittance was demanded from them by a jury.
In 1996, the Department of Justice in the Philippines dismissed every fraud charge against Pepsi, reversing an earlier order calling for the arrest of the company president and a handful of other executives. Still, some Number Fever court cases lasted another ten years, until the Philippines Supreme Court declared that Pepsi had no further obligation to make payouts.
It’s my understanding that these days Pepsi has a foothold in the Philippine market but they’ve never been able to recapture what they had just before the Number Fever War. Honestly, I’m surprised they can show their logo at all. I understand Pepsi couldn’t have spent the $32 billion it would have taken to fulfill all these mistaken bottle cap promises. And yet!
To run this contest in one of the most economically disadvantaged countries in the world? And botch it? And only offer victims twenty bucks in place of the forty grand they thought they were getting? And spend decades fighting any proper justice in court? And you’re Pepsi, not Faygo or Dr. Brown’s?
Seems like someone should have gone to jail.