The Disastrous Consequences of the “Number Fever”
It’s 1992, and Pepsi Philippines has launched a groundbreaking marketing campaign that’s taken the nation by storm. It’s a lottery-style competition that involves matching a ‘unique’ three-digit code, printed on the underside of Pepsi bottle caps, to the numbers announced every night on the Channel 2 News program in Manila.
The campaign was designed as a way to wrestle a chunk of market share from the dominant soft drinks force at the time, Coca Cola, but it ended in riots, homemade bombs, and death. All because of a software blunder that should have been avoided.
The campaign was called “Number Fever” and it had been running since February of that year. Most of the prizes awarded were just 100 pesos (roughly $5 at the time), but there was also an opportunity to win a grand prize of one million pesos or the equivalent of $37,000 to $40,000. This was a lifechanging sum for many of the Philippines’ impoverished citizens.
It all started innocuously enough, until May 25, when the now-infamous number “349” flashed up on the screens of homes throughout the country. The prize money for matching the number: one million pesos. There was supposed to be just one winner. But, there wasn’t…
There were 486,170!
In a disaster, Pepsi had accidentally printed number “349” on 800,000 bottles, and almost half a million livid Filipinos were, quite rightly, demanding their prize. Pepsi quickly issued a statement promising to pay $20 to each winner as a gesture of goodwill. Some accepted the payoff and got on with their lives. Others vowed to take what was rightfully theirs, at any cost. As one protester defiantly declared: “Even if I die here, my ghost will come to fight Pepsi.”
Pepsi erected barbed wire around their offices as riots, boycotts, and picketing ensued. 37 Pepsi delivery trucks were razed, homemade bombs were launched at several Pepsi-owned buildings, and five people ultimately died as a result of the fallout.
So what could have gone so terribly wrong as to turn a highly successful marketing campaign, responsible for a 40% spike in Pepsi’s sales, into one of the worst PR disasters in living memory?
Pepsi had recruited D.G. Consultores, a widely-respected Mexican-based marketing firm, to manage the competition. The winning numbers were generated by a computer and stored in a safety deposit box in Manila. The list was then be used to “seed” bottle caps in the bottling plants. But, that computer system had gone awry. A bug in the computer told bottlers to print number “349” 800,000 times.
So what can we learn from this QA debacle?
The incident brings to mind Murphy’s Law: “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”. It’s an amusing proposition, but one that carries an element of truth. This was a great campaign, well designed, and incredibly successful, but a random software error led to disastrous consequences. We have to be extremely diligent in our QA roles, implementing sound quality management and testing strategies to ensure failures of this magnitude never happen on our watch, however positive and exciting a project’s intentions. But, we also have to be realistic and remember that it’s not possible to predict every possible outcome.
The Great Pricefx Chocolate Experiment is yet another example of a project with good intentions that ended in chaos. Fortunately for us, the results were not quite so dramatic. In an attempt to discourage lateness to our 9 AM meetings, we devised a rule: anybody who arrived late would have to bring chocolate for the whole team. The theory seemed sound: people wouldn’t want to waste their money on chocolate, so would start coming on time.
But, the theory was proved wrong. Employees continued to come late. Chocolate began to pile up. It was getting out of control. Two months and one trouser size later, we finally called a halt to the experiment and moved the meeting back to 10 AM. Problem solved.