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Cautionary Tales – Number Fever; How Pepsi Nearly Went Pop

Summary:
Pepsi twice ended up in court after promotions went disastrously wrong. Other big companies have fallen into the same trap – promising customers rewards so generous that to fulfil the promise might mean corporate bankruptcy. Businesses and customers alike are sometimes blinded by the big numbers in such PR stunts – but it’s usually the customers, not the businesses, who end up losing out. Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts. Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella

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Pepsi twice ended up in court after promotions went disastrously wrong. Other big companies have fallen into the same trap – promising customers rewards so generous that to fulfil the promise might mean corporate bankruptcy.

Businesses and customers alike are sometimes blinded by the big numbers in such PR stunts – but it’s usually the customers, not the businesses, who end up losing out.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

Numerous contemporary news reports tell the story of Number Fever – for example, this piece in the Los Angeles Times by Bob Drogin.

After recording the script, I discovered an excellent long read in Bloomberg by Jeff Maysh. It was too late to help us make this Cautionary Tale but it is the most comprehensive piece of reporting on the subject and highly recommended.

David Philips tells his pudding story here, the exploits of Bananaman are here, while the Hoover fiasco is relayed by The Hustle as “The Worst Sales Promotion In History“. Maybe.

Here is a legal analysis of the fighter jet case, while Tim Silk and Chris Janiszewski have an academic paper on “Managing Mail-in Rebate Promotions“.

Matt Parker’s delightful book Humble Pi tells the story of the Pepsi Points Harrier ‘offer’; John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy is a modern classic.

Tim Harford
Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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