The Billion Dollar Question.

The forgotten story of the largest cash prize in American Game Show history.

I.

Here’s my favorite Super Bowl commercial. It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen.

It was early 2000. The new millennium was upon us, and we were at the precipice of a Golden Age in subversive, chimp-based advertising. It’s not difficult to imagine what it was like to be in the E*TRADE boardroom when this ad was pitched, what buzzwords were scribbled onto the whiteboard: 

Irreverent? Circled.
Monkey? Double-circled.
Lou Bega? Crossed out.

We were still about 7 years away from the E*TRADE Baby (and Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, among others), but the pieces were already in motion. It was calculatedly bizarre, a combination of the jaded 90s and the soon-to-be viral marketing of the 2010s. Early Internet Weird. The good stuff.

This commercial also serves as a reminder that, while the calendar may tell us when decades begin and end in a physical sense, culture speaks in broader terms. Culturally, the 90s ended on September 11, 2001, and E*TRADE’s 'Monkey' had a specific 'post-90s, pre-9/11' vibe to it. It was Conan O’Brien driving his desk. It was 'In The Year 2000' in the year 2000. E*TRADE didn’t know what was coming. None of us did.

This glimpse into the recent past- and using said glimpse to project into the naive future- is the reason why it’s still my favorite Super Bowl ad. It’s a product of its time; the clip, amongst all its faux-hip cultural foresight, had no idea what it was going to come to actually represent. It’s just a clapping monkey, but it speaks volumes. 

Chisel that shit onto my gravestone.

Today, physically, it’s 2021. But I suppose the 2020s can’t culturally begin until the pandemic ends. Or maybe the 2020s began in late-2019 when the pandemic began. I’m not sure, man; time is a blur right now. It’s a prolonged stasis. It’s the week between Christmas and the New Year every week, over and over again. We simply have 'before' and 'after,' just like we did in the years following 9/11. And hey, now that I think of it, online stock trading is back in the news, too. This is not the way any of us wanted history to repeat itself.

The idea of 'wasting' $2,000,000 in 2000 wasn’t insane enough to not be funny, but wasn’t mundane enough to not be interesting. However, if 'Monkey' aired today out of the blue, I’d be far more ambivalent about the ad. Perhaps even turned off. It would be seen as tone deaf; you could do a lot of good with that money right now. The cultural temperature was properly predicted by typical Super Bowl heavy hitters Budweiser and Coca-Cola this year, who made charitable contributions in lieu of costly spots. It’s still advertising, of course, but it’s 2021 advertising. They made the right call.

But let’s go back to the early 2000s. Let’s talk about not making the right call. Let’s talk about what happens when the temperature isn’t taken properly. Let’s talk about one of the most ambitious, most grandiose and somehow most-forgotten debacles in the history of Advertising.

If E*TRADE throwing a couple million into the air in 2000 was beloved (or at least modestly chuckled at), and if Who Wants to be a Millionaire was the biggest show on Earth, then what was guaranteed to be bigger than that? How could a company with an exorbitant amount of money and a global audience raise the stakes in a way that would make the whole world stand at attention? If giving away a million dollars was good, then you know what would be better?

Giving away a billion dollars. 

And that’s exactly what Pepsi attempted in 2003: To pluck a soda-chugging rando out of obscurity and instantly make them one of the 500 wealthiest human beings on the planet. And almost nobody remembers.

The Pepsi 'Play For A Billion' story combines nearly all of my favorite things into a delicious charcuterie of popular culture: Game shows. Soda marketing. Defunct TV stations. Chimps in Advertising. 21st-Century dystopia. Jamie Kennedy. All it was missing was a sports mascot’s head falling off and every dopamine trigger in my brain would be sufficiently fired clean through the roof of my house.

You’re an adult. I can’t stop you from looking the rest of this story up if you want. But I can promise you’ll have more fun if you let me drive the desk.

I’m just a clapping monkey, but I speak volumes.

II.

Let’s get the most important part out of the way first: Yes, that is a pre-Office John Krasinski in this commercial. Please enjoy.

It’s not difficult to imagine what it was like to be in the Pepsi boardroom when the 'Play For A Billion' promotion was pitched, what buzzwords were scribbled onto the whiteboard: 

1 million dollars? Circled.
1 billion dollars? Double-circled.
Lou Bega? Crossed out.

It was, at the time, the largest cash giveaway in American history. Here’s how it worked:

Unique contest codes were printed onto one billion cans, bottles and Pepsi promotional items the nation over. Any Joe 2-Liter could log onto the Pepsi website and register these hard-earned codes. A random drawing of 1000 applicants who met contest requirements would follow, with the lucky contestants being flown to Hollywood to participate in a live TV special (on the WB) to determine who walked away with the cash.

While a billion unique codes meant that every citizen in the country could have entered 3 times (per 2003 census), Pepsi execs projected that the number would probably be closer to 200-300 million total entries from about 100 million people. One of the first signs of trouble popped up when the registration period closed with just over 20 million entries from about 4 million people total. Pepsi was looking to do something incredibly ambitious, and right off the bat they weren’t even coming close to meeting their expectations of participation. "It’s a billion dollars, you jerkwater hee-haws! What more do you want from us?"

Perhaps a flat, un-carbonated precedent had already been set in the minds of Pepsi drinkers. Despite the 'nobody’s ever done this before' nature of the spectacle, this wouldn’t have been the first time the cola company dropped the ball on a huge promotion. Remember Leonard v. Pepsico?

Short Version: In 1996, Pepsi offers 'cash' which can be redeemed for swag. One of their commercials implies, in jest, that you can win a Harrier Jet if you collect 7,000,000 points. Some dude collects the 7,000,000 points and demands his jet. Pepsi tells him to shove it. The guy sues. The government gets involved. Pepsi ultimately wins the case, but it leads to changing the commercial, changing the rules of the contest and the eventual placement of the now-constant disclaimers you see at the bottom of each and every commercial aired on American TV. Nobody won.

And while you may be wondering if the Simpsons episode "Bart Gets An Elephant" was based on this real-life story, the episode aired two years before the Pepsi Cash promotion. "Elephant" was based on a separate, equally-bizarre incident from The Price Is Right in 1956, where a contestant demanded the elephant he won (as a gag prize) instead of its $4,000 cash value. The craziest part? The producers acquiesced and got the man his elephant from Kenya. Look it up.

What I’m saying is, this all may have led customers in 2003 to doubt Pepsi’s motives when it came to the giving away of a billion dollars. And a dip into the Official Rules showed they weren’t exactly wrong.

The 'Play For A Billion' fine print showed just how difficult it was to not only win- but to legally give away- a billion dollars. Even a wealthy company like Pepsi didn’t want to end up 100% on the hook if someone were to actually take this cash from them, so they sought insurers to cover their ass if the unexpected happened. In an ironic twist, they ended up being insured by Berkshire Hathaway…famously one of Coca-Cola’s main stockholders.

When someone wins an enormous amount of money in a lottery, I’m always interested in how they plan to receive their winnings. As you know, there are usually two options: Take a spread-out annuity over a span of 20 or so years, or take a guaranteed lump sum that’s significantly less than the total winnings. For the Pepsi 'Play For A Billion' contest, one lucky contestant was guaranteed to win a million dollars that would be paid immediately, no sweat. However, if they won the billion, they had the opportunity to receive either a $250 million lump sum or an annuity that spread out over 40 goddamn years. Here’s the actual breakdown from the rules:

Year 1-20: $5 million/year ($100 million)
Year 21-39: $10 million/year ($190 million)
Year 40: $710 million

Think about this breakdown. Kick it around in your head; think of what you would do. This could be a completely different essay on its own. Look, it’s a very nice annual check for the first 10, 20, 30 years, no question about it. But a billion it ain’t, and Pepsi was playing on an absurdly-tilted table that said at least $710-$750 million of that jackpot would never have to logistically be paid out. You’re either taking the $250 million lump sum, or you take the 40-year annuity and don’t live long enough to see a penny more than $290 million. And let’s not even talk about taxes.

So, we’re up to speed. Despite past gaffes and red tape, Pepsi was committed to giving away a billion dollars. They put out a billion game pieces. 4 million people entered. From that pool, it was whittled down to 1000 lucky folks who were randomly selected to participate in the big show. They were flown to Hollywood and, on September 14, 2003, all sat silently on a sound stage awaiting their fate. Someone would win a million dollars. Someone could win a billion dollars. 

How was this going to go down? What would the contestants need to do to win? Whose hand now controlled their destinies? I’ll let Executive Producer Matti Leshem answer that question. Horribly:

"An unusually dexterous monkey will decide. It’s the ultimate slap in the face to Evolution. The fate of a billion dollars will be in the hands of a monkey."

Jesus H. Christ. What kinda Running Man shit was going on here?

Can you imagine a PR spokesman making a statement like this in 2021 and expecting people to respond with anything other than blind rage? A slap in the face to Evolution? It feels gross on so many levels. Pepsi HQ would be justifiably stormed. Tweets would be ratioed into oblivion. Hell, we’d be mad enough that the chimp was being forced to participate in Capitalism against its will, let alone the optics of a company flinging cash into the air like primate turds while the country erodes from the inside-out.

But hey, it ain’t 2021, it’s 2003. And it’s showtime.

III.

Drew Carey welcomes the 1000 contestants who were lucky enough to make it this far. He also tells the crowd that the number is actually 992, as 8 people bowed out or couldn’t make it or died or something. Odds are getting better by the second!

Assisting Drew tonight are Jamie Kennedy (star of WB’s The Jamie Kennedy Experiment) and Holly Robinson Pete (who we all know from Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and nothing else). Jamie’s going to give away consolation prizes throughout the night mixed with his delightful brand of hidden camera practical jokes, and Holly will be sequestered backstage with the accountants being kept on hand to make sure nobody cheats or steals the chimp, who is formally known as 'Mr. Moneybags.'

Not content to be just a 2-hour Pepsi commercial, 'Play For A Billion' also happens to be a 2-hour commercial for the WB’s Fall lineup, featuring such future classics as Black Sash and Tarzan. It’s incredible the network would survive for another three years, to be honest with you.

When the 992 contestants arrived earlier in the day, they were asked to pick a 6-digit number, any 6-digit number they wanted. Producers made sure there were no duplicates. Drew interviews an audience member who says the numbers came to her in a dream.

Outstanding.

In the secure backstage vault with lottery officials present, Holly rolls 6 different 10-digit dies produced from a briefcase. That gives us 6 different single-digit numbers, which is where Mr. Moneybags comes in. He then selects the order of the 6 numbers by drawing appropriately-numbered billiard balls from a sack. This is what gives us the magic 6-digit number, and if anyone’s number matches this one exactly, they’re going to be a billionaire. Maybe.

A particularly tragic moment occurs when Mr. Moneybags, excited to help, reaches into the sack prematurely and has his hand pulled back by one of the officials. In a distant, alternate universe more rooted in poetic justice than our own, The WB had a live mauling on its hands.

Of the 992 contestants in attendance, a computer determined the 10 who have 6-digit numbers closest to (or exactly matching) Mr. Moneybags’ number. Nobody in the studio is aware of Mr. Moneybags’ number. These 10 contestants are invited on stage and into the next round. This takes an hour. A 'Pepsi Spokesman' then explains how the finalist’s numbers are determined to be 'closest' to the jackpot number, and it’s significantly more complicated than you’d assume. This takes another 15 minutes.

Let’s meet our finalists.

Here’s where I want to mention that, while 2003 was sort of early in internet terms, it was still plenty modern that any lunatic watching could have been to the winner’s house in minutes should they successfully walk off with the loot. These contestants didn’t have a Scream mask to hide behind. In fact, pretty personal details of their lives are about to be read on stage as a way to create tension.

Of the 10 finalists, we have a 'packer/loader' from New York named Catherine, Bryan Wilson, a man from Ohio who’s on a dart team, and a balding, suspender-donning teacher named Richard from West Virginia (pictured) who likes to draw. There’s even someone playing as a surrogate for an actual contestant who’s undergoing surgery. Finally we have Elaine, a Nursing Assistant from Minnesota who met her husband at a stock-car race.

They all look like they’re about to shit their pants.

While our 10 finalists are standing uncomfortably close to each other on stage, Jamie Kennedy awards Joseph Pinero, a man who looks and sounds exactly like Ray Romano, a 'lifetime of vacations' from Marriott for having the number furthest from what Mr. Moneybags had selected. They do not explain how this works, or what a 'lifetime of vacations' means. This takes another 10 minutes.

And now, 1 hour and 23 minutes into a 2-hour broadcast, we begin the Game Show portion of 'Play For A Billion' that will actually produce our guaranteed million dollar winner.

Nine finalists are about to picked off one at a time. They essentially have to believe their number is the closest (or spot-on), or take a consolation prize in order to leave with guaranteed money. With the first round starting at $20,000 and continuing up to $100,000, the finalists will voluntarily decide to take the offered money or risk being thrown off as a result of having the number that’s the next-furthest away.

What this means is, even if you have the closest (or exact) number, you could still get cold feet, take the $20-$100k offer and bounce, missing out on a potential million (or billion). The 6-digit numbers of anyone who leaves willingly are inherited by whomever is left standing at the end for a chance at the billion. Diamond hands, homies.

In Round 1, nobody willingly takes the $20,000. Joseph the Surrogate is deemed the furthest number away. He is eliminated and neither he or the person he was playing for in surgery wins anything. This makes me laugh for some reason. At this point, Drew takes the time to remind the audience that Bryan (the dart team guy) got into the contest because he found 8 bottle caps in his car. "You got to be here because you’re a slob," he says. Excellent.

Rounds progress. A woman named Debb takes the $40,000. Catherine, our packer/loader from New York, takes the $50,000. Elaine, our stock-car race-loving Nursing Assistant from Minnesota, takes the $60,000. Bryan the Slob takes the $70,000, a guy named Brandt takes the $80,000, and a guy named Dean takes the $90,000. You could see Dean’s life flashing before his eyes as the clock ticked down.

Just like that, we have two men left on stage. Richard, our sweaty teacher from West Virginia, and Thomas, who is obviously a weirdo.

Their final choices break down like this:

1. You can hit the buzzer first, take $100,000 and go home, making your opponent a millionaire no matter what; possibly a billionaire.

2. You don’t hit the buzzer and assume your number is closer. If it is, you’re a millionaire, if it’s not, you leave with nothing.

3. If your opponent hits their buzzer first, they take the $100,000 and you win the million (and a shot at the billion) automatically.

Richard starts crying when they ask him what he’d do with the money. His mom died of cancer in 1992 and he wants to start a foundation after paying his tithes to the church. Thomas says the first thing he’d do is buy a Dodge Viper. He says this after Richard says that thing about his mom. It’s absolutely incredible.

In the dramatic climax, Weirdo Thomas is eliminated and Teacher Richard wins the million. He and his wife embrace and cry as cash rains from the sky. He’s a millionaire. But we’re not done.

Now his 6-digit number, along with all of the rolled-over numbers, will be checked to see if they match Mr. Moneybags’ number. This presents a truly insane scenario. Not so much that Richard could win a billion dollars, but that someone who walked away earlier may have won the billion had they just stuck around and stood still. It’s all for nought, however, as Richard indeed had the closest number the whole time. Those who elected to take the cash turned out to be correct in jumping ship. I’m sure Thomas still wakes up screaming.

Here it comes. The billion dollar reveal.

Richard is closer than he has any business being, off by just two digits.

Sadly, nobody becomes a billionaire tonight. Richard takes his million, Drew signs off holding a bottle of Pepsi, and almost nobody talks about or remembers this event ever again until right now.

IV.

Looking back on 'Play For A Billion,' what little online information exists are just press releases and marketing info. There is nothing to suggest it’s remembered (fondly or otherwise) in the public consciousness. Perhaps it’s discussed from time to time amongst advertising executives as a punchline, along with New Coke and the Arch Deluxe.

Oh, and Richard. It’s probably still remembered fondly by Richard, too. I hope he’s doing alright and got to start that foundation.

We could continue picking apart why the campaign failed, but it seems evident that the answer is 'everything.' A Psychology Today article from 2013 hypothesized that one of the reasons is that humans (in 2003 at least) have a hard time understanding the astronomical difference between a million and a billion. Another reason could have been the Harrier Jet fiasco fresh in the mind of consumers. Maybe nobody gave a shit about The WB, I dunno.

In 2000, E*TRADE and a clapping monkey spoke volumes. Together they blew $2,000,000 in 30 seconds and it was considered irreverent and clever. An accurate distillation of new millennium culture, provided you squinted hard enough. But when Pepsi and Mr. Moneybags put $1,000,000,000 on the line three years later, they did so in a world that had moved on. Things were different now. When Matti Leshem said that 'Play For A Billion' would be "the ultimate slap in the face to Evolution," he had no idea how right he was going to be.

Thanks for letting me drive the desk.