This Pepsi Ad Killed 5 People

The Number Fever - Pepsis' Viral Philippines Campaign

The consumer is not a moron, she’s your wife.

- David Ogilvy

In 1992 Pepsi ran a contest in the Philippines that ended up killing five people. 

The contest was called Number Fever, and the idea was very simple. Every evening, the news would reveal a winning number and if you had a Pepsi bottle cap with that number, you won a million pesos.

A million pesos in 1992 was a life-changing amount for the average Filipino, which made this contest go viral. 

Families would stockpile Pepsi bottle caps in their homes. Many people would root through dumpsters trying to find winning caps. According to Pepsi, half of the country's population was actively participating in the contest.

Throughout the campaign Pepsi was in complete control of how many winners there were, they relied on a computer program to seed two winning caps into bottling plants. Two winning caps meant that there could only be two winners, and Pepsi would stay within their budget. But something went wrong. After they extended the contest, the computer program glitched, causing some numbers to be mixed up. On May 25th 1992, at 06:00 PM, the winning number349” was called out, and while there were only supposed to be two winners, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos began to celebrate. 

You see, “349” was already designated as a non-winning number. And because of this, bottling plants were free to print that number as much as they wanted. This resulted in over 600,00 “349” caps circulating in the Philippines. 

It was such a common cap that many people had more than one. That night, the streets went wild with celebration. They were all rich and could finally stop worrying about money. Hundreds of people rushed to the Pepsi factory with their winning caps. It soon had to be shut down and guarded by police. 

Pepsi quickly realised that they had messed up big time and It would cost them tens of billions of dollars to honour each winning cap. 

So instead, they put the blame on the computer and offered 500 pesos for each winning cap. Now, 500 pesos was only around $18. This was 0.5% of the original prize. And while some took them up on this offer, most refused and became even more angry.

Violent protests and riots broke out,. The winners stormed the Pepsi factories, throwing Molotov cocktails into the windows and bombing Pepsi trucks that drove by, ultimately leaving five people dead and dozens injured.

Over the next year, the angry mob took a more organised approach to fight Pepsi. Coalition Three Four Nine was a group of winners that took legal action against the company. They elected a local preacher named Del Fiero as their leader. He rounded up over 800 winners in an attempt to sue Pepsi for over $400 million. Now, the chaos continued well into 1993, at which point a new twist in the story started circulating. Old newspaper headlines suggested that Pepsi was somehow responsible for bombing their own trucks. These headlines were based on a testimony from a police officer. He alleged that in order to paint Coalition Three Four Nine as terrorists and damage their position in court, Pepsi hired mercenaries to infiltrate these groups and cause the riots. More testimony surfaced of people claiming that Pepsi had paid them to start trouble and cause mayhem. A Pepsi lawyer quickly denied the allegations, and that was basically the end of it. In 1993, the court finally put an arrest warrant out for nine Pepsi executives. This was a huge win for Coalition Three Four Nine, but unfortunately, it was one of their only. 

In the following months, almost all of the civil suits and criminal complaints were tossed out of court. And in 2006, the court officially closed the book on all of the remaining court cases. 

They found that Pepsi had not been negligent in the number fever disaster. When it was all said and done, Pepsi only had to pay one small fine of 150,000 pesos. 

Many Filipinos who experienced The Number Fever are still traumatized to this day. Even mentioning the word Pepsi around certain groups is frowned upon. Pepsi was recently asked for their response to the number fever disaster, and they came out with this statement these events took place almost 30 years ago, and none of the executives familiar with this program are at PepsiCo anymore. “We deeply regret any pain and suffering our mistake caused the people of the Philippines”