In the ’80s and ’90s, America had some of the best contests. We had Publisher’s Clearing House where you could win huge fake checks. We had McDonald’s Monopoly which took just as long and was just as unwinnable as a real game of Monopoly. And for a few short months in 1990, we had the Coke MagicCan contest.
The MagiCan contest was part of Coke’s “Magic Summer ’90” promotion that started on May 7, 1990, and ended earlier than expected on May 31st. In the promotion, some Coca-Cola cans had cash prizes and gift certificates inside. Surprisingly, Coke decided to mess with their iconic product for this contest, as winning cans weren’t filled with soda, but a weird tasting and stinky chlorinated water to make the cans feel and weigh normal, and prevent people from easily finding the prize cans.
Winning cans also featured a spring-loaded device that popped up your prize. The prizes could range from $1 to $500, gif certificates, or coupons for trips and merchandise.
Like any other contest, people tried to cheat the system. Stories abound of people grabbing and shaking every can on the shelf to see if they could figure out if there was anything inside or not. But the folks who were shaking all those cans just set other customers up for a surprise when they opened the can, and not the surprise that Coke was hoping to give them.
The original plan was to randomly distribute about 750,000 MagiCans among the 200 million cans of Coca-Cola Classic in circulation at any one time. The contest was intended to run through June 15th, but was cut short due to problems with the cans.
For starters, the pop-up mechanism malfunctioned on a number of cans and didn’t work at all, some jammed, and some cans had faulty seals that released some of the chlorinated water mixture into the can itself. And then there was the incident where an 11-year-old boy in Massachusetts drank the foul-tasting liquid used to replace the cola. Despite initial fears, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health determined that the water was not harmful, and contained a lower concentration of chlorine than water typically found in a swimming pool.
Coke worried about the bad publicity and the potential liability lawsuits, so they pulled the plug on the cans after only three weeks. The Magic Summer ’90 contest continued without the cans though, as Coke switched gears and started giving away tickets to the Coca-Cola sponsored “New Kids on the Block Magic Summer Tour” and distributing “MagiCups” that featured peel-off prizes on the exterior of soda cups at fast-food restaurants. At the time the contest ended, it was estimated that only about 200,000 of the intended 750,000 cans had made it to the market.
The Coke MagiCan contest of 1990 wasn’t near as bad or damaging to their image as the New Coke fiasco of 1985 was, but left a bad taste in people’s mouths nonetheless. Luckily for Coke though, few people even remember the failed promotion these days.
Coca-Cola would attempt a similar promotion three years later with “Monsters of the Gridiron”, and you can read all about that here on The Retro Network.
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I remember hearing about this. The way I’d heard it, people got pissed off when their cans didn’t work and didn’t have anything for it, which just sounds stupid — at least if you have any awareness of the contest in the first place.
As for the water… kind of makes you wonder if at the scale they produce it, it wouldn’t have been as efficient to just put actual Coke in there, or even just carbonated water.