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COLUMN ONE : Bottle Cap Flap Riles the Masses : After a Pepsi promotion went awry, thousands of Filipinos mistakenly thought they were in the money. Now the firm is trying to cool off protests that have united rebels, generals and matrons.

July 26, 1993|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — Pepsi's advertisements, splashed for weeks all over Philippine newspapers, radio and TV, were hardly subtle: "Today, you could be a millionaire!"

From her tin-roofed shack in one of Manila's more squalid slums, Victoria Angelo couldn't resist. The unemployed mother of five and her husband, Juanito, who pedals people about in his three-wheeled cab for about $4 a day, began drinking Pepsi with every meal and snack. Each morning, the family prayed for a specially marked bottle cap. And each night, they and their neighbors flocked around a small television to see if their prayers were answered.

And then, a miracle!

On May 25 last year, the nightly news announced that anyone holding a bottle cap marked 349 had won up to 1 million pesos, about $40,000, tax-free.

Spreading her collection of caps on a table, Victoria Angelo screamed, "We are a millionaire!"

Her voice ringing with excitement, she recalled that she turned to her family: "I tell my children you can finish school and go to college. I tell my husband he can buy a (passenger jeep). I tell myself we can buy a real house. Can you imagine? It is a dream come true!"

But her dream has become a nightmare for New York-based Pepsico Inc. In a marketing mistake that surely must rank among the world's worst, Pepsi had announced the wrong number. Instead of a single 1-million-peso winner, up to 800,000 bottle caps marked 349 had been printed. And tens of thousands of Filipinos soon began demanding billions of dollars that Pepsi, not surprisingly, refuses to pay.

The dispute--on which Pepsi has spent millions of dollars--has sparked a Cola War, Philippine-style. Pepsi records show that at least 32 delivery trucks have been stoned, torched or overturned. Armed men have thrown Molotov cocktails and homemade bombs at Pepsi plants and offices.

In the worst incident, police say a fragmentation grenade tossed at a parked Pepsi truck in a Manila suburb last Feb. 13 bounced off and killed a schoolteacher and a 5-year-old girl and wounded six others.

Pepsi executives here have gotten so many death threats they use round-the-clock bodyguards and vary office hours and travel. Other heavily armed guards ride shotgun on Pepsi trucks. The company has withdrawn all but two expatriates, leaving an official in charge who has experience in Beirut.

And suing Pepsi has become the choice of a new generation. Criminal and civil claims filed against Pepsi across the Philippines far outnumber those against the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos and his wife, Imelda, who are accused of looting up to $10 billion during their reign.

At last count, more than 22,000 people have filed 689 civil suits seeking damages from Pepsi, plus more than 5,200 criminal complaints for fraud and deception, the company says. Only a handful of trials have begun, but the nation's appeals court this month upheld arrest orders against 10 local Pepsi executives. The company has appealed, and no arrests have been made.

Even more remarkably, in a country crippled by daily electric blackouts, endemic corruption and poverty that is among the most pervasive in Asia, the only protests that regularly draw angry crowds into the streets are those against Pepsi. In ways the government never could, the anti-Pepsi fever has brought together Communist rebels and army generals, well-dressed Manila matrons and barefoot rural peasants. All hold 349 caps.

"This has united the people. . . . Pepsi has cheated the Philippine people," Bhambi Santos, an anti-Pepsi activist and evangelist, bellowed into a bullhorn at a recent rally of several hundred banner-waving, drum-beating people in Manila's business district.

The protest ended abruptly moments later when a rock tossed from the crowd smashed a window in the government's trade and industry office, which had approved the Pepsi promotion.

Such violence reflects conditions in the Philippines, where foreigners, particularly Americans, are frequently blamed for this country's problems.

Kenneth Ross, spokesman for Pepsi-Cola International, which owns 19% of the local bottling company, said the company's position is clear. "We will not be held hostage to extortion and terrorism," he said in a telephone interview from Purchase, N.Y.

But unlike Pepsi's cool crisis management in the United States after false reports spread that syringes were found in Pepsi cans, company officials here panicked. When mobs rioted after the bottle-cap error was announced, frightened executives decided at a pre-dawn meeting to offer $20 in pesos to anyone with a 349 cap.

"They made two mistakes," said one official, who like all local Pepsi employees asked not to be identified. "You should never make a decision at 3 a.m. And they thought it was a few thousand people at most."

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