The 'MagiCan' That Couldn't: How Coca-Cola Tried to Hide Cash and Prizes in Soda Cans and Failed
by Rudy Sanchez on 08/18/2021 | 6 Minute Read
The world was a very different place in the 1990s. From questionable fashions and dial-up modems to pogs and Tamagotchis, even the business of selling fizzy sugar water feels like something from a bygone era. Sure, partnerships with pop stars and celebrities existed then, as did sweepstakes for instant cash and cruises. Prize giveaways usually included consumers sending in an entry form, perhaps with the requisite inclusion of a proof-of-purchase or a UPC cut out off the packaging.
Yes, life was more analog in those days.
For the summer season of 1990, Coca-Cola had big plans. Multi-million dollar giveaway all summer long? Sure. Sponsorship of a major concert tour of the hottest boy band in the country? The Atlanta-based company had that in the works too. But Coca-Cola also had a big surprise for the public that summer that no one had seen before—a packaging innovation that made winning cash prizes happen instantly.
Coca-Cola had invested in developing a special can that would reveal a small prize, such as a rolled-up dollar bill or a voucher for a loftier surprise, when you pushed down the soda tab as one typically does. The patented beverage packaging, dubbed “MagiCans,” was designed to look and feel like a regular soda can. The hidden prizes created a national treasure hunt with an unexpected and instant win possible with every purchase.
Inside the MagiCan, Coca-Cola enclosed a spring-loaded mechanism with a watertight compartment. To trick prize hunters, they filled the inside of the vessel with chlorinated water to give the prize cans the weight and feel of cans filled with Coca-Cola. To prevent consumers from consuming the water inside, they added a harmless but farty-smelling chemical, ammonium sulfate.
By spring of 1990, things were heating up in Atlanta, with the Coca-Cola sales and marketing team girding their loins in preparation for a “Magic Summer.” It wouldn’t just be the biggest Coca-Cola promotion ever; according to then-company president Ike Herbert, it would be the single biggest consumer promotion ever. Ike Herbert was the Coca-Cola executive who signed off on the “Buy the World Coke” ad, a man who definitely knew how to push some serious quantities of soda.
“Magic Summer ‘90” would kick off with prize cans being sent out to the media, generating a lot of free attention due to the novelty and, of course, cash. Coca-Cola would spend an estimated $100 million on the promotion, with $30 million in media buys alone.
But getting the gimmicky “MagiCans” on morning shows, the local evening news, magazines, billboards, TV, and newspapers wasn’t enough. Coca-Cola also partnered with the hottest boy band at the time, New Kids on the Block, or NKOTB, if brevity is more your thing, as part of its Magic Summer ‘90 campaign.
By 1990, the boy band had taken the pop music world by storm, and Coca-Cola had secured the primary sponsorship of the group’s second major tour, beginning a mere month after concluding their previous one. Called the “Magic Summer Tour,” the event made no mention of the band or the fourth album they were supporting (Step by Step) anywhere in the name. When NKOTB went out to do media to sell the concert tour, they’d invariably also promote Coca-Cola.
The Summer Magic Tour would prove a financial success, being one of the top ten tours of the year, selling more tickets than the Rolling Stones, certainly a bigger deal back then. The tour grossed over $74 million from 152 shows in 122 cities. Coca-Cola doesn't really have a hard time peddling their wares, and while it's difficult to quantify the impact such a show had on selling pop, one can still imagine the brand seeing a lift from the association.
It wouldn’t take long for the magic to fizzle on Coca-Cola’s ambitious promotional campaign due to the stunt packaging. By late May, there were reports of faulty cans. The MagiCans were suffering from defective ejection mechanisms, and worse still, leaky compartments within the container carrying the foul-smelling chlorinated water. Sometimes, cans would suffer from both faults simultaneously, leading to ruined prizes. Though the problem was not widespread—Coca-Cola would say they only received 22 complaints—the small number of unfavorable reports would prompt the firm to run full-page ads nationwide explaining how to handle a possibly defective can nonetheless.
There was little else Coca-Cola could do to address the issue. The original plan had been to release 500,000 more cans, but the brand scaled back further distribution, and cans not yet released into the wild were filled with wax instead. Since the MagiCans are indistinguishable from regular cans without opening or shaking them, a recall wasn’t in the cards because you would have to take all of the cans back.
The same media that excitedly reported on the MagiCan at launch was also quick to inform the public about the hospitalization of eleven-year-old Zachery Gendron. The bot took a sip from a leaky can, prompting his mother to call the police, who then coordinated with Coca-Cola officials and the Massachusetts department of health.
Zachery was fine, but the damage to the promotion had been irreparable, and Coca-Cola axed the MagiCan stunt after one month.
The farty-reaking flop would come on the heels of New Coke, a perfect opportunity for Pepsi to point and laugh at its arch-rival, but the summer of 1990 wasn’t finished with raining PR nightmares onto soda brands. Pepsi’s counter promotion, called “Cool Cans,” featured limited-edition label designs and a relatively breezy giveaway, as they printed the prize code on the bottom of the can and possible winners called a toll-free number to redeem any winnings.
Though the set of four Cool Can designs were eye-catching and fun, some saw subliminal text hidden within the neon-themed label. Since supposed subliminal messages are never banal, the rumor was that the word “sex” was underneath that neon glow. But just kind of, and only if you set the cans just right. By 1990 standards, having the word “sex” on a soda can was pearl-clutching enough to merit a scandal, as the internet wasn’t really quite a thing yet.
Coca-Cola’s complicated packaging would do little to deter other brands from running similar promotions. Two years later, Coors Light ran a “talking cans” campaign, though it made some significant tweaks to their own novelty cans. When opened, the Coors Light cans would play a “you win!” recording, but unlike the MagiCan, the Coors Light packaging didn’t contain an actual prize and came filled with a genuine, consumable beverage. Which is likely preferable to passed gas.
Novelty cans haven't gone away, despite the MagiCan flop. These days, however, a can that talks or promises to dispense cash seems quaint compared to Miller Lite’s gaming joystick, the “Cantroller.” And not just technologically—also in the way brands execute their promotions. These days, brands can use one-off or limited novelty packaging to promote their products over social media and then use these same platforms to give them away, negating the need to hide winners among everyday products, Wonka-style. Consumers don’t have to fill out and mail sweepstakes forms, either; they can enter a contest via social media. Brands are more targeted, aiming for specific consumer groups, and promotions are shorter, smaller, and more frequent.
MagiCans continue to endure as prizes in-of-themselves, with surviving examples selling for hundreds of dollars on auction sites such as eBay. And while we can't recapture the magical summer of 1990 (aside from the look and fashions of the decade rearing their head once again), you can always throw on Step by Step, close your eyes, and just imagine a flatulent can with a Franklin sticking out of it.