Intravenous Pepsi Case Study
The summer of 1993 was made more exciting by the alleged presence of hypodermic syringes in at least two cans of Diet Pepsi. The first was “discovered” on June 9 in Tacoma, Washington, and, after television reports were broadcast, another was “found” a few days later in Cleveland, Ohio. By mid-month there was a rash of claims on file from citizens who said they had likewise been surprised.
At the same time, PepsiCo, Inc. (the parent company based in Somers, New York) began aggressively denying that anything other than Diet Pepsi could be found in Diet Pepsi cans. Their reaction has become a case study in responsible and effective corporate crisis management. It involved four steps:
Put public safety first.
Find the problem and fix it.
Communicate to reporters on the reporters’ schedule.
Be accountable for solving the crisis.
Immediately on learning of the incident, Pepsi North America President & CEO Craig Weatherup and FDA Commissioner David Kessler held a televised press conference, appeared on ABC-TV’s Nightline, and blanketed the news media with press releases. They ran video of how Pepsi produced its beverage, irrefutably showing that it would be impossible to put anything in a can while it was speeding along the assembly machines under Pepsi’s supervision. They also stressed the penalty for filing false product tampering claims (five years in prison and $250,000 in fines) and encouraged use of the words hoax and copycat, all the while putting a human face on the predicament. Rebecca Madeira, Pepsi Cola Company public affairs vice-president, working with company executives, got the press to temper its hysteria with logic and reportage. The company’s 24-hour telephone hotline was kept updated. Everything was coordinated with the company’s 400 bottlers to ensure that the information given out would be consistent.
"Sex Sells Cars" Myth
Ever notice that there are two kinds of car commercials on television? First, there’s the super-slick kind that shows the vehicle whooshing along the open road, slashing through jungles, climbing mountains, and curing rare diseases. Then there is the crude local kind where a man in loud clothing walks through a parking lot full of cars, screaming, “Hi! I’m Crazy Conroy! Come on down!”
Guess which sells more cars? That’s right: Crazy Conroy. The slick “corporate” spots are designed to create a mystique for the car, and an image for the brand name, and to subtly target what people they want to buy each model of car (check out the gender, age, and race of the actors). The local dealership ads are designed to make the funny car salesperson into a celebrity so that they have an advantage closing the deal (“Wow! Crazy Conroy sold us our car!”). Interestingly, it’s too early to know which of these ad types—if either—inspires the people who buy cars online.
As “syringings” continued across the country, it became clear that it was impossible for the fault to have been Pepsi’s. So many cans from so many different bottlers were supposedly tainted that it had to be the work of independent people who thought they could shake down the company.
Finally, on June 16, Pepsi obtained a videotape of a Colorado woman caught on a convenience store’s surveillance camera trying to slip something into a Diet Pepsi can. The FDA asked Pepsi not to release the tape until an arrest was made, but as soon as the tamperer was detained, the footage hit the airwaves. On June 21, 1993, Pepsi ran newspaper ads headlined, “Pepsi is pleased to announce … nothing.” Because of the company’s forthright response, the story disappeared, and Pepsi went back to fighting its traditional battle against Coca-Cola.
No criminal charges were brought against the Seattle man who made the original complaint. Apparently a mix-up occurred involving a diabetic family member who used the can to dispose of her insulin syringe. As for the Colorado woman who was arrested for product tampering, Colorado’s Attorney General’s office explains that the state has no codified criminal records, so it impossible to report on her fate.
(Note: The Pepsi-Cola Company provided some of the information for this report.)
Things Go Better with Mickey
Remember when “they” told you on the playground that if you took a bunch of aspirin and chugged a bottle of Coke, you’;d catch a buzz? Or that the soft drink has cocaine in it? Or somebody once found a dead rodent in a bottle of Coke? Well, the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company remembers it, too, and Robert E. Baskin, their director of Corporate Media Relations & Communications, took the time to set the record straight about this legendary soft drink.
Segaloff: Has anybody ever actually complained about finding a dead mouse or a mouse skeleton in a bottle or can of Coke?
Baskin: There has never been a case of a mouse or mouse skeleton actually found in a can or bottle of Coca-Cola. This being a sometimes difficult world, there have, regrettably, been instances in which criminals have tampered with finished packages after they have purchased them and attempted to defraud either a retailer or our Company by inserting a foreign substance. But even these instances are extraordinarily rare.
Segaloff: Did the advertising slogan “Coke adds life,” when translated into Chinese (as the Internet rumor says), really come out “Coke brings your dead relatives back from the grave”?
Baskin: The slogan “Coke adds life” was correctly translated to say “Coke adds life.” Frankly, we have never heard your version of the translation before.
Segaloff: Can you really get a buzz by chugging Coke and aspirin?
Baskin: You’;ll have to ask a physiologist or physician about this. If I drink Coke when I take an aspirin, I satisfy my thirst and relieve my headache!
Segaloff: Is there now, or was there ever, cocaine in Coca-Cola?
Baskin: While the formula for Coca-Cola remains a secret, it has been a constant. It has not changed in one hundred and fourteen years. And cocaine was never an ingredient.
Segaloff: Why does Coke seem to taste different in different parts of the country?
Baskin: Coca-Cola is identical across the country and around the world. Taste is subjective. The best Coke I’;ve ever had was in Burkina Faso, a country in equatorial Africa. But that may have been because it reminded me of home.
Segaloff: Why does it taste better in the classic eight-ounce bottle?
Baskin: I, too, think it tastes better in the eight-ounce bottle, but our flavor chemists tell us that there is no difference. Obviously, taste is impacted by the mind.