How Apple and Pepsi fumbled their 2004 Super Bowl ad play

Preachy Super Bowl XXXVIII campaign to give away 100 million iTunes songs fell 95 million short


Ten years ago, at the height of the music download legal wars, Apple and Pepsi marketers figured this was a can't-miss Super Bowl commercial: Take 16 teenagers whose parents had been strong-armed by the recording industry into paying thousands of dollars in legal settlements and have them announce to the world that Apple and Pepsi would be giving away 100 million iTunes songs for free.

"Hi, I'm one of the kids who was prosecuted for downloading music for free off the Internet," says one of the teens. "And I'm here to announce in front of everyone that we're still going to download music free off of the Internet. And there's not a thing anyone can do about it."

(2014's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

Cheeky - and the "prosecuted" part wasn't literally true -- but an accompanying Green Day cover of "I Fought the Law" would sledgehammer home the real point, one that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was happy to endorse: Don't "steal" music online, kids, buy it from Apple instead ... and drink Pepsi. Here's the spot:

Free music downloads that won't get your parents sued? What could go wrong? ... Turns out at least a few things.

A winning code number was to be found on the inside bottom of about one in every three bottles of the soft drink, which lucky recipients would then redeem at iTunes for a free song. However, Pepsi dropped the ball when "yellow-capped bottles with the Apple song codes were late in reaching some key markets," according to CNET. From the comments section on that story: 

"The promotion was completely hindered by Pepsi's inability to get bottles out in the market. I didn't see one bottle in Los Angeles until about two weeks ago, and I hear they were having similar problems in New York. This must be driving Steve CRAZY, having to rely on Pepsi's infrastructure only to have it fail so spectacularly."


Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when some dearly departed messenger delivered that news to Steve Jobs.

And there was also a problem of sorts with the specially marked bottles that did reach store shelves: It didn't take X-ray vision to figure out which ones were winners.

From a CNN report:

Jon Gales, who runs Macintosh-user site, posted instructions this week on how to look into sealed Pepsi bottles and figure out which ones carry winning iTunes codes in their caps.

"With luck, you should be able to see under the cap," said Gales, 19, a college student who discovered the trick by chance. "It takes a few minutes to get used to the angle... and you may have to twist the bottle."

In short, you just had to look, you didn't have to buy a bottle and take your chances.

Bottom line: That 100-million song giveaway turned out to be about a 5-million song giveaway.

(Watch Steve Jobs play FDR in take-off on “1984” Super Bowl ad)

Apple and Pepsi tried again in 2005, this time with a goal of distributing 200 million free songs. While I don't know how that attempt turned out, I'd guess that Pepsi managed to get the soda bottles on store shelves on time ... because Steve Jobs never went to prison.

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