History of advertising: No 176: Chinese Democracy

A major soft-drink brand seizes the chance to show off its cool credentials and street cred by getting itself associated with a world-famous rock band via an easy-to-implement marketing idea that would probably cost nothing. What could possibly go wrong?

History of advertising: No 176: Chinese Democracy

In the 2008 case of Dr Pepper and Guns N’ Roses, just about everything. It was also a salutary lesson to marketers of the dangers of not preparing for every eventuality.

Not only did the brand have to deliver on a promise it thought it would never have to keep but a technological meltdown left it with thousands of cheesed-off customers and the threat of a writ from Axl Rose, the band’s lead vocalist.

The cause of it all was the Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy. Like the real thing, Chinese Democracy was a long time coming. Although recording for the $13m album had begun in 1994, it had still not been released by early 2008, the band having become seriously dysfunctional with members regularly replaced.

With seemingly little prospect of the album appearing, Dr Pepper announced it would give every American a can of its soda should Chinese Democracy be released that year.

The challenge seemed to spur the band. Because, on 23 November 2008, Chinese Democracy hit the stores.

Caught on the back foot, Dr Pepper posted a coupon for the soda on its website but gave customers only 24 hours to visit it and print the coupon.

Unsurprisingly, the site crashed. And, to make matters worse, bloggers began blaming Rose rather than Dr Pepper for the malfunction.

Despite extending the promotion and setting up a free phone line to deal with the protests, few people were able to claim their coupons.

Meanwhile, a furious Rose demanded Dr Pepper place full-page apologies in major US newspapers.

Things you need to know

  • Lawyers acting for Guns N’ Roses threatened to sue Dr Pepper for "unauthorised use of and abuse of their publicity and intellectual property rights". However, a writ was never issued.
  • Chinese Democracy not only got a cool reception but was condemned by the Communist Party of China as a "venomous" attack on the country.
  • In 2010, Dr Pepper was forced to abandon a Facebook promotion that led to a 14-year-old girl trying to watch a porn-movie trailer.
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