Geek Trivia: Contest(ed) winners

What "unwinnable" contest prize did someone actually manage to win in a Pepsi Stuff giveaway, thereby leading to a landmark lawsuit?

If one definition of insanity is to try the same action over and over yet hope for different results, then Pepsi marketers might be able to defend a claim that their cola is the most insane soft drink on the planet. Why? Because Pepsi is still running promotional contests to encourage people to drink their sodas despite a record of getting such promotions spectacularly wrong.

So far as the general public knows, none of Pepsi's recent giveaways have led to the loss of tens of millions of dollars, or the settlement of precedent-setting lawsuits, but with such a colorful promotional history it's a least a little bit shocking that Pepsi is still in the contest and giveaway business. Let's start with one of their least costly promotional face-plants.

In 1983, Pepsi encouraged folks to drink their products with The Name Game promotion, which promised to reimburse anyone who could spell out his or her last name using letters printed on the inside of Pepsi bottlecaps or can flip-tops. Contest organizers hoped to control the number of winners by making vowels scarce, forgetting that there are plenty of Anglicized names that have no vowels in them at all. Richard Vlk, for example, completed almost 1,400 sets and pocketed over $20,000. Not bad for a soda-abstaining diabetic who simply collected the necessary letters using newspaper classified ads.

In 1996, Pepsi topped the Name Game foul-up with the rare accomplishment of making supermodel Cindy Crawford somehow bad for business. Crawford was a spokesmodel for the Pepsi Stuff giveaway, which let consumers redeem "points" from Pepsi products in exchange for Pepsi-branded sweatshirts, tote bags, and the like. Again, Pepsi underestimated how many people wanted to wear the same t-shirt as Cindy Crawford, and spent $60 million more than anticipated on redemptions. Pepsi was forced to cancel the giveaway months ahead of schedule.

Still, neither of those giveaway gaffes holds a candle to the real landmine hidden in the Pepsi Stuff campaign -- an "unwinnable" prize that someone actually won, and which Pepsi was forbade by law from actually redeeming. The fallout from this unexpected "success" by a contestant was a landmark lawsuit and some eternal infamy for Pepsi.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...