Money in Coke cans?! Putrid smelling liquid in Coke cans?! People drinking putrid smelling liquid they found in Coke cans and getting sick? This 1990 Coca-Cola MagiCan promotion really had it all.
Coke kicked off the Summer of 1990 with an ambitious promotion: stash money or coupons redeemable for trips and other prizes into Coke cans and “golden ticket” those cans into the world for everyone to find. They even included tickets to a New Kids on the Block concert tour that they were sponsoring. That’s a prize, right?
The cans containing prizes had little a “pop-up” mechanic that pushed the money or coupon up through the lid when the can was opened. To ensure the cans had the same heft as a regular can of Coke, the winning cans had a compartment in the bottom containing liquid. The liquid was foul smelling and undrinkable, to discourage people winning a prize and then thinking they still had Coke to drink.
It’s not hard to see how this fell apart. Sometimes the little pop-up thing wouldn’t pop-up, and sometimes that compartment of gross liquid would leak into the main chamber and…get drunk. Reports came out of people drinking the liquid and becoming sick, and the question of whether the liquid was harmful or not became immaterial given the PR nightmare it caused. Coke shortened the MagiCan promotion given the hit to their image, modifying it to a cup-based promotion where you’d peel off your ticket. And doubling down on the New Kids angle.
The geek in me loves this promotion; the can technology and the Wonka-esque nature of it really speak to me. That said, it’s laughable how off the rails it went and how quickly it went off of those rails. The fact that the commercials had to explicitly say “if you see anything other than Coca Cola in those cans, don’t drink it,” should be a red flag that you’re in Bad Idea territory. This promotion isn’t “New Coke” bad, but it’s pretty close.
I remember my mom wigging out about this, angry that they would sell you a can which contained a putrid liquid rather than coke. Fat lot of good it would do you, she’d say, to win NKOTB tickets when you were in the desert, dying of thirst, and had just stuck your last dollar into the coke machine to stave off the dusty hand of death with a cool refreshing coke, and instead won a can of putrid liquid and boy band tickets.
This was my first thought, too, about how oddly disappointing it would be on some level to not get the Coke you bought and were looking forward to.