Pepsi, fearing jammed phone lines, cancels Super Bowl giveaway

January 26, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

It's enough to make Ray Charles sing the blues: Pepsi-Cola Co. has withdrawn a million-dollar giveaway game originally scheduled to air during commercials for Diet Pepsi during the Super Bowl telecast tomorrow.

The ads, featuring Mr. Charles, would have given three viewers a chance to win $1 million by calling a special toll-free number.

Callers who didn't hit the jackpot wouldn't have gone away empty-handed: Pepsi had planned to give away a coupon for a free 2-liter Diet Pepsi to all callers who got through.

But not anymore.

Pepsi spokeswoman Leigh Curtin said the company decided late Thursday to cancel the giveaway contest in the face of increasing concern that the promotion might tie up telephone lines nationwide. Five new Diet Pepsi commercials will run during the game tomorrow as planned, however.

Regulators, local phone companies and even a congressman lTC had expressed concern about the possibility that callers might jam local phone networks, making it difficult, if not impossible, for emergency 911 and other important calls to go through.

The United States Telephone Association, which represents independent phone companies across the country, estimated that Pepsi's call-in promotion could have generated up to 50 million calls simultaneously.

Such a volume of calls might have exceeded the ability of the local phone companies to sort and route the calls, said association spokesman Paul Rogowski.

"We're not sure what would have happened to the network," Mr. Rogowski said. "Nobody's ever tried something like that."

Pepsi's call-in promotion had been in development since last summer, Ms. Curtin said.

She said no one at Pepsi consulted with local phone companies about challenges to their networks that the promotion might present. Instead, she said, Pepsi marketing officials relied on "normal channels of communication" between the long-distance companies, which stood to reap a windfall from the promotion, telemarketers and local phone companies.

It was not clear which "normal channels" she was referring to, and Ms. Curtin did not elaborate.

The total cost of the promotion would have been about $20 million -- for air time, prize money, telecommunications costs and full-page ads in national publications.

As part of its preparations, Pepsi had ordered 30,000 extra phone lines, including special toll-free lines and local lines.

The promotion isn't the first involving a cola to fall flat.

A Pepsi television ad featuring the rock star Madonna, for example, aired only once. It was pulled after complaints about the religious overtones of the commercial, which featured Madonna singing her controversial song "Like A Prayer."

Another Pepsi campaign, featuring rock superstar Michael Jackson, went up in flames, literally, after his hair caught on fire during the filming of the commercial.

Archrival Coca-Cola canceled a national promotion featuring pop-top Coke cans with coupons for prizes inside. The campaign was canceled after customers reported that some cans were exploding unexpectedly, causing injuries.

Pepsi seemed to be unfazed by the events of the week. Ms. Curtin said the next giveaway campaign, which won't be unveiled for a while, will feature a Lamborghini sports car as a prize.

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