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Number Fever: The Pepsi Contest That Became a Deadly Fiasco

Decades ago, a marketing stunt promised Philippine soda drinkers a chance at a million pesos. But an error at a bottling plant led to 600,000 winners—and to lawsuits, rioting, and even deaths.
Corrected
Two of Pepsi’s infamous 349 crowns.

Two of Pepsi’s infamous 349 crowns.

Photographer: Geric Cruz for Bloomberg Businessweek

Marily So, a woman in her early fifties with graying hair, runs a sari-sari store out of her one-room home in a concrete building beside a railway track in Manila. In the steamy heat of a summer afternoon, shirtless children appear at her window clutching coins. With a kind smile, she serves them warm bottles of water and Royal Tru, one of a few sodas she displays alongside tiny shampoo sachets and single cigarettes. There’s one brand she refuses to sell. If someone asks for a Pepsi, her expression sours. For more than 28 years she’s nurtured bitter resentment against the company. “I didn’t have a job back then,” she says, starting in on her Pepsi story.

It was 6 p.m. on May 25, 1992, and So was among the 70% of Filipinos watching the Channel 2 evening news. Then 23, she was living in a wooden shack beside the tracks with four children under 5. Pepsi was about to announce the winning number in a promotion that had gripped the Philippines’ 65 million people. Her husband, a house painter, had spent their last centavos on special “Number Fever” bottles of Pepsi, hoping one of the three-digit numbers printed on the underside of the caps would match one of the winning numbers locked inside a vault.