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Cash Is the Latest Weapon Deployed in Cola Wars

March 15, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ The blazing red oasis outside the closed filling station beckons the lonely driver.

It is the middle of the night and the Coca-Cola vending machine is the only sign of life for miles along the rural highway.

The driver wheels off the road, his headlights trained on the life-saving cooler. He struggles out of his bucket seat, fumbles for the last three quarters in his jeans pocket and drops the coins expectantly into the slot.

The driver, now confident that his thirst will at last be quenched, heaves a sigh of relief as he listens to his Coca-Cola Classic rumble out of the machine.

He snaps open the top and raises the can to his parched lips. But instead of the familiar fizz tickling his nose, he feels something very different.

It’s a dollar bill and a ticket to a theme park.

Surprise, Mr. Consumer, you’re a big winner in Coke’s ″Magic Summer″ campaign. Sorry about the missing soft drink, but hey, you’re going to Disney World.

Coca-Cola Co. unveiled plans this week for what it calls the largest promotion in its history. Beginning in mid-May, you too could get money and-or prizes - instead of a drink - when you pick up a can of Coca-Cola Classic from a vending machine or the grocery store.

If you’re lucky, you won’t be down to your last three coins and the appearance of a prize in place of your favorite beverage won’t disappoint.

Coke officials are so certain you’ll be thrilled they’ve spent $100 million on the promotion that will put three-quarters of a million winning cans into distribution this summer. The ″instant-winner delivery system″ was a hit, they say, in test markets in Iowa and Illinois.

″In addition to having a positive impact on sales, it created a lot of street-level excitement,″ said Coca-Cola spokesman Bob Bertini, commenting on the test.

You have to admit, the program does appeal to basic American instincts - cold cash sure beats taste tests and matching numbers printed on bottle caps for attracting buyers.

The cans will carry up to $200 in cash or vouchers for prizes. At the very least, if you’re a winner, you’ll get a dollar bill (to compensate you for not getting the drink) and a prize. The prizes include tickets to theme parks and such sporting events as the World Series and the Super Bowl.

Some of the cans will carry just money. The least you’ll get is five bucks.

This is not just another cruel joke from the people who once tried to replace the classic version of Coke with a sweeter New Coke. This is, if you’ll excuse the expression, the real thing.

But the idea of providing a prize instead of a product has some people scratching their heads.

An unnamed PepsiCo spokesman quoted by The Wall Street Journal this week was typically skeptical: ″So, wait a minute, you could actually go to a vending machine, buy a can of this stuff and not get any product. Interesting promotion.″

It is ″leading-edge technology,″ Coke will have you know, that is making all these giveaways possible. The process of producing dry, hard currency and prizes from a can that shakes like it’s full of Coca-Cola took 2 1/2 years to develop.

Although difficult to explain in terms Joe Six-Pack can understand, the system preserves the prize in a plastic vial that releases the goods like a jack-in-the-box when the can is opened. The can is filled with water, they say, to keep the unsuspecting winner guessing until the moment of truth.

For those determined to get to the Coca-Cola, the plastic cash compartment carries the warning, ″Do not puncture can or drink contents.″ Nothing will dribble out, even if you turn the can upside down.

As the Coke people say, ″There’s never been anything like it.″

That’s for sure. And while cash in a can isn’t Ed McMahon on your doorstep with $10 million, it’s money nonetheless.

The prospect of angry consumers kicking vending machines for spouting money instead of Coca-Cola is probably far-fetched. But is Coke prepared for all the fortune-hunters who will roam the supermarket aisles popping tops?

It’ll be an interesting, if not magic, summer for the guys in the marketing department.

End Adv PMs Thursday March 15

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