All That Glitters

Who is Pepsi kidding with its $1 billion promotion?

I was in a bad mood anyway. The Lakers lost. The Yankees lost. There’s only one more Buffy episode left before the best show on television fades, kicking and killing, to black. I was more than ready to wreak some columnly mayhem on the next sign from the ad world that the apocalypse is knockin’ at the door.

So when I came across Pepsi’s “Play for One Billion Dollars” summer promotion, I was off like an Iraqi official on the road to Syria.

Play for $1 billion? What’s next, “Buy a Pepsi, Win a Country”?

I mean, why? What’s wrong with a dinner with Shakira? A year’s supply of Super Bowl spots? An all-expenses-paid trip to Purchase, N.Y.?

Simply upping the dollar ante might be a recipe for a successful promotion. But it contributes to this culture’s accelerating slide into sludge, indulging yet again our preference for size over substance.

Besides, this particular promotion is, to my mind, more than a little disingenuous. At the end of its run this summer, 1,000 Pepsi bottle-cap keepers who’ve found special codes will compete on live TV for a guaranteed $1 million. Then that winner has a chance—a 1 in 1,000 chance—to win that cool billion.

Bet those odds don’t make it onto the end-aisle displays.

Listen, if you gave away a job or a house or a gas mask and duct tape, that would make sense. A topical use of creativity in the more prosaic of the marketing arts.

Look, it’s not the dollar figure, per se. But if you’re going to numb ’em with numbers, at least make the money work hard. I can think of several possibilities:

Take the Bates CEO job, win $1 billion!

Buy an IPG go-cart course, win $1 billion!

Shoot your next ad in Toronto, win $1 billion!

Vote Democratic, win $1 billion!

Ah, but I think this $1 billion promotion has nothing to do with effectiveness and everything to do with desperation. It’s a response to the below-the-line equivalent of clutter. So many promotions, so little attention span.

It’s all this relationship-marketing technology and one-on-one techniques and Internet measurability and golden era of direct response. Americans are even more inundated by all of this than they are by TV commercials (although they may call all of it “advertising,” which is another problem entirely).

Really, outside of the stray Elvira point-of-purchase, who really notices promotions? When was the last time you remembered the brand behind a Super Bowl promotion that wasn’t the Bud Bowl?

Sure, I know these are short-term sales-building gimmicks. But I think they have a sinister long-term effect that negates whatever immediate gratification they provide a client’s bottom line. Promotions are multiplying like Tribbles in our little corner of the global village. They are the stealth bombers of clutter, contributing under the radar to the gagging sound that is the U.S. consumer suffocating under all that one-to-one marketing love.

Hey, my kid drinks Coke. I drink scotch. What do I know about how Generation Next will respond to a $1 billion Pepsi promotion? But the concept itself seems like a bad idea whose time has probably come. And, unfortunately, it will stick around for a while.

Because you know a $5 billion Coke sweepstakes is next. And then a $10 billion Dr Pepper giveaway. Then we’ll have dueling nine-figure sweepstakes in the automotive category and the credit-card category.

Consumers won’t win a walk-on role in a movie. They’ll win an above-the-title producer credit. And the day after the promotion ends, still nobody will be able to remember which marketer did it.

Of course, if they gave away Sarah Michelle Gellar, that I’d remember.