The Coca-Cola MagiCan Contest
Coke made a spring-loaded can to give away prizes. What could go wrong?
My family are Coca-Cola drinkers. From an early age, I learned of this brand loyalty from my Mom. We were always up on whatever news was happening in the world of our favorite soft drinks. Of course, we couldn’t wait to try Cherry Coke and New Coke. Then of course we couldn’t wait till we got Coca-Cola Classic back. So when Coke announced that they were going to run their MagiCan Contest with fun cans that awarded prizes, we were ready to pop one open and win.
What was the MagiCan?
The MagiCan concept was clever. You would buy a can of Coca-Cola and instead of opening and getting a delicious beverage, a prize was inside. This prize was delivered via a spring-loaded mechanism that raised the prize out of the can when opened. You are probably wondering, “wouldn’t I be able to tell the difference between a regular can and a MagiCan?”
Coca-Cola went through a lot of development to make them as close as possible. This meant weighting them correctly and filling the area around the inside of the can with carbonated water. This water would chill at the same rate as regular Coke cans and combined with the prize mechanism gave them the same weight. Thus preventing people from trying to guess at winners simply by feel.
They also didn’t want people trying to drink the soda if the prize mechanism malfunctioned and somehow this water leaked into an area it was accessible. To discourage this, they added chlorine and ammonium sulfate. The thinking was that anyone who encountered this smelly concoction wouldn’t take a sip, even though it was technically safe to drink. As we will discuss a little later, they were wrong.
Coca-Cola didn’t rush into this release, they did do some testing in 1989. As reported in the Quad City region (a region of cities in Iowa and Illinois), the company release 2000 of the cans into the normal distribution network. With cash prizes ranging from $1 to $100 and vouchers for larger prizes, it didn’t take long for the first winner to step forward.
Lasting for about two months, the promotion was a success, and it set the stage for the nationwide contest that would start in May of 1990. Just in time to face off against Pepsi, who was running their own “Cool Cans” contest. Which was a much simpler contest where the prizes were printed on the bottom of the can.
The MagiCan Contest goes Live
In March of 1990, Coca-Cola officially announced the MagiCan contest would be part of their $100 million Magic Summer campaign. In addition to the MagiCan, they would also start offering MagiCups at participating restaurants. These were simpler peel-away contest with prizes hidden on each cup. Winners could find rolled up currency in denominations ranging from $1 to $500 or coupons that you could use for trips or physical prizes.
The even bigger news was that the company would be sponsoring the New Kids on the Block’s Magic Summer Tour. The tour’s name was directly taken from Coke’s ad theme, not the other way around. All these giveaways combined with the power of NKotB promised to help push Coke’s reputation and sales up in their ongoing war with Pepsi. With commercials like this on screens, how could they go wrong?
Things went wrong rather quickly.
We’ve had 70,000 winners so far, and less than 50 say they had this problem with the can.
Randal W. Donaldson (Coca-Cola spokesperson)
Consumers weren’t aware of all the work and testing Coke did with the cans before the national release. Following the launch of the promotion, some consumers began shaking and weighing cans of soda in stores, hoping to detect the special cans that contained prizes. This behavior was driven by the curiosity and excitement surrounding the possibility of finding a prize, leading to an unusual shopping phenomenon. The promotion had unintentionally turned the routine act of buying a soda into a mini treasure hunt for many consumers. As you might guess, I was one of those people who was sure that just given time, I could figure out which cans were winners.
With a 1 in 2700 chance of winning, there were a lot of MagiCans out there (750,000). Remember all that engineering and preparation they did to the cans and how it was supposed to prevent people from drinking from the can if something went wrong? Well, something went wrong. Shortly after the contest began, an 11-year-old got one of the defective cans and drank from it. His parents, rightfully concerned, thought it might be a case of product tampering and called the police. The police discovered the defective mechanism and $5.
Coke responded immediately. They ran full page ads in 50 large newspapers and bought ad time on television to explain the contest and how it was supposed to work. Generally, when you need to go through this much effort to explain a contest, it might not be the best type of contest.
Things just got worse for Coke. The press was only interested in what was going wrong. Whispers of lawsuits for damages or mislabeling were being thrown around. So they inevitably did the sensible thing and decided to cut the contest short. The 750,000 cans they had distributed would be it and no cans would be recalled.
The Coca-Cola MagiCans promotion of 1990 serves as a notable example of a well-intentioned marketing strategy that faltered due to unforeseen complications. The innovative idea of placing cash prizes and redeemable coupons inside cans, which at first seemed like a clever way to spark consumer interest, quickly turned problematic. The technical glitches leading to malfunctioning cans not only disappointed customers but also raised health concerns. Furthermore, the insufficient communication regarding the nature of the promotion added to public confusion and skepticism. This fiasco underscored the importance of thorough testing and clear communication in promotional campaigns. Coca-Cola's experience with the MagiCans promotion remains a cautionary tale for marketers about the risks of innovative but inadequately vetted marketing strategies.
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