MANILA, JULY 28 -- A bizarre twist in a Pepsi promotional campaign to make millionaires out of poor Filipinos has turned into a battle between tens of thousands of consumers and the American soft drink giant.
PepsiCo Inc. launched its "Number Fever" promotions last year, promising as much as 1 million pesos -- about $37,000 -- in instant cash to those who held bottle caps with three-digit winning numbers.
The controversy erupted after the company announced on May 25, 1992, the winning number for that day, 349. Thousands of people rushed to Pepsi plants around the country to collect. But the company refused to give them their prizes, saying the caps did not have the right security number.
Winners complained, saying the promotional materials did not say a "winning" security code was needed as well, only that a security number determined the authenticity of the cap.
In what it called a "goodwill gesture," Pepsi agreed to pay $18 each to anyone holding one of the 800,000 caps with the number 349. The company compensated about a half million people for a total of $10 million.
Since then, irate winners have rioted at some of the plants while others attacked bottling plants and delivery trucks with grenades and firebombs.
In Davao City in the south, a teacher and a 5-year-old girl died when a grenade lobbed at a truck bounced off and exploded near a crowd on a street. The bottling plant there has stopped operation because of grenade damage.
The Philippines Senate Committee on Trade and Commerce accused Pepsi of "gross negligence" and noted that Pepsi was involved in a similar fiasco in Chile just a month before the 349 incident.
Pepsi blames the flap on "a computer software glitch" that allowed the inadvertent printing and circulation of hundreds of thousands of additional 349 caps, albeit ones without "winning" security codes.
"It's a horribly unfortunate situation. But there was no attempt on Pepsi's part to deceive anybody," Kenneth Ross, a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola International, said today from Pepsico Inc.'s headquarters in Purchase, N.Y.
A group of winners is pressing a criminal fraud and swindling suit against Pepsi.
Pepsi has filed a motion asking dismissal of all criminal cases in the wake of a January ruling by the Philippines Department of Justice that there was no basis for criminal charges against the company.
Nationwide, about 50,000 349 cap-holders have been organized. Franklin Valenzuela, 29, said he has quit his job as a messenger so he could devote his time to pursue his claim.
Pepsi, Ross said, will not meet with any representatives of such groups "as long as an environment of threats and violence persists."