At the start of 2008, few people could have predicted a film titled Kung Fu Panda would become the year’s third-highest grossing movie (The Dark Knight was number one); that an Iraqi journalist would throw his shoes at President George Bush (he ducked); or that someone would assemble a world-record setting rubber band ball (it weighed in at 9032 pounds). Nor could they have predicted that lawyers for musician Axl Rose would write an open and sternly worded letter to Dr Pepper, chastising the soft drink company for a public relations campaign the attorneys dubbed a “complete fiasco” and charging them with “reckless indifference or complete stupidity.”
The ire directed toward Dr Pepper, though bizarre, was not without cause. It was the result of a spectacular misstep in marketing—one that started as a joke and quickly became a costly venture for the popular carbonated beverage. In March 2008, Dr Pepper brazenly promised a free soda for every single person in the United States if Axl Rose and his reconfigured band, Guns N’ Roses, finally released their long-awaited Chinese Democracy album by the end of the year.
It seemed like a safe bet. Rose had been working on the record for 14 years. A release was unlikely given Rose’s infamous perfectionism and fractured relationships with his bandmates. In making the claim, Dr Pepper was awash in free publicity.
It doesn’t seem like anyone in the company gave serious consideration to what would happen if Rose decided to end the delay and put the album out. In November, that’s exactly what he did. Suddenly, millions of people wanted what they had been promised: a free Dr Pepper.
There was nothing in the history of either Dr Pepper or Guns N’ Roses to suggest their storied histories would ever overlap. The drink was the brainchild of Waco, Texas, pharmacist Charles Alderton, who formulated a 23-ingredient fountain beverage in 1885 and saw its popularity soar thanks to its presence at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He dubbed it Dr Pepper, though no one really knows why; one persistent rumor is that it was named after the father of a girl Alderton was in love with, but the origin of the name remains open to apocryphal speculation.
Dr Pepper was initially marketed as a health drink, free of the caffeine or cocaine that was present in similar concoctions. Some people used to drink it hot. It was a popular flavor and largely successful, even though it mostly existed in the shadow of the big two soft drink manufacturers, Coke and Pepsi.
In 1987, right around the time Dr Pepper was preparing to merge with Seven-Up to create a new soft drink conglomerate, a Los Angeles-based band named Guns N’ Roses released their first studio album, Appetite for Destruction. The band had been formed by William Bruce Rose, an Indiana native who came out to the West Coast to pursue a music career and took the stage name of Axl Rose (an anagram for oral sex). With childhood friend Izzy Stradlin, guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler, the Rose-led band went on to superstardom, holding the record for the biggest-selling debut album of all time, with 30 million copies sold.
The band followed up that success with a dual-disc album, Use Your Illusion I and II, in 1991. Soon, a variety of problems began to plague the group. Stradlin left. Adler struggled with addiction. Rose was alleged to have taken a hardline stance in the creative process, alienating Slash, who left in 1996. Other members came and went.
Through it all, Rose was preoccupied with Chinese Democracy, an ambitious and experimental record that he worked on with no particular sense of urgency. The band’s label, Geffen Records, sent a line of executives to try and persuade Rose to finish the album. Deadlines came and went. Rumors of the album being all but finished were confirmed when Rose let Rolling Stone writer David Wild listen to nine tracks in 1999. The year came and went, but no record was forthcoming.
Rose’s inability or unwillingness to complete Chinese Democracy became something of a running joke in the music industry, with Rose becoming an increasingly elusive figure. He performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002, leading to speculation the album was about to be released. It wasn’t. Geffen released a greatest hits compilation in 2004, leading to the same talk, but that record wasn’t even Rose’s idea: It was Geffen's, as they were looking to recoup the exorbitant costs of the delayed album. By 2005, it was estimated Rose had spent $13 million of the label’s money in production costs. Geffen finally cut him off and insisted he pay for any further studio time himself.
That was the state of the band when Dr Pepper marketing director Jaxie Alt proposed a bold strategy. It’s not known whether Alt was a Guns N’ Roses fan or simply someone who thought it would be fun to reference the album’s notorious reputation. Either way, Alt and Dr Pepper announced in March 2008 that if Chinese Democracy came out before the end of the year, they would buy everyone in America a free bottle of Dr Pepper.
In a release, Alt wrote:
"It took a little patience to perfect Dr Pepper’s special mix of 23 ingredients, which our fans have come to know and love. So we completely understand and empathize with Axl’s quest for perfection—for something more than the average album. We know once it’s released, people will refer to it as 'Dr Pepper for the ears' because it will be such a refreshing blend of rich, bold sounds—an instant classic."
To Dr Pepper, it must have seemed like betting on a coin toss. But instead of opting for heads or tails, they were betting on the coin landing on its edge—probably the same odds of Rose managing to let go of Chinese Democracy after 14 years of work. (The company also mentioned the offer was good for everyone but Slash and Buckethead, presumably owing to their respective departures from the band.)
Rose, however, took the promotion in good humor, releasing a statement clarifying that he and his management had no official deal with the drink but were still “very happy” to have Dr Pepper’s support.
For a time, it seemed as though Dr Pepper’s plan to stir up publicity worked. The story was picked up across several mainstream media outlets as well as Rolling Stone and Billboard. It was a lofty pledge, but few people believed Dr Pepper would ever have to worry about fulfilling their promise.
It’s hard to know when Dr Pepper executives began to grow concerned. It might have been in August 2008, when a blogger named Kevin Cogill was arrested by the FBI for streaming nine tracks from Chinese Democracy on his website, a violation of federal anti-piracy laws. It’s not that it counted as an official release, but Cogill’s source (he didn’t reveal who) must have had their hands on something that was in some stage of preparation for distribution. It’s also possible Rose finally felt the state of music piracy was such that the full album would be leaked without his consent eventually and that he might as well do it himself. Whatever the case, in October, Geffen announced that Chinese Democracy was coming out on November 23.
After the requisite fan excitement, people remembered Dr Pepper’s offer and began soliciting the company for comment. Tony Jacobs, the brand’s vice president of marketing, made an announcement: “We never thought this day would come,” he said.
In print, it was hard to know whether Jacobs was excited, worried, or some combination of the two.
The logistics of offering a free Dr Pepper to every single person in America was daunting. The U.S. population at the time was 305 million. Clearly, this could not involve giving an unsolicited 20-ounce Dr Pepper to people preemptively. If people wanted a free Dr Pepper, they would have to make their request known.
In a second press release, Dr Pepper explained the details of the offer. People could visit the official Dr Pepper website on November 23, the day of the album’s release as a Best Buy store exclusive, and share their name and address. Within four to six weeks, they would be mailed a coupon good for one 20-ounce bottle of the drink, redeemable at any establishment where Dr Pepper was sold.
Dr Pepper was making good on its offer. But fans felt the method left a lot to be desired. The site would accept registrations for the coupon for just 24 hours. Immediately, people had problems with the page failing to load, crashing, or refusing to save their information. A phone line that had been set up to take requests for the voucher was also tied up. Dr Pepper could not handle the volume of people looking for their free bottle of soda. November 23 was a Sunday, and the company extended the deadline through Monday in an effort to accommodate everyone.
As complaints mounted, Rose’s attorneys took action. In a letter directed at Dr Pepper executives, they lambasted the company for the ill-conceived promotion and alleged it capitalized on the popularity of Guns N’ Roses while simultaneously harming the reputation of the band. They declared the whole idea a “unmitigated disaster which defrauded consumers” and demanded they run apology ads in major newspapers. The stunt, they argued, harmed the release of Chinese Democracy.
Laurie Soriano, an attorney for Rose, said that Rose’s camp had tried to work with Dr Pepper before the album’s release so demand could be met. But, she said, Dr Pepper didn’t want to collaborate. Soriano also told CNN that fans erroneously believed Rose was involved and were holding him partially responsible for the failure. The letter mentioned that the company had never sought out any official tie-in to the record or endorsement from Rose.
It’s not known how many coupons were ultimately redeemed, though site issues, lack of interest in Dr Pepper, or people simply failing to use them probably contributed to a number significantly less than 305 million. Dr Pepper’s brand seemed no worse for the wear, and Chinese Democracy sold a respectable 549,000 copies in its first 12 weeks of release. Despite the claims by Rose's lawyers, it’s unlikely people declined to buy the album out of protest over a soft drink promotion.
Dr Pepper remains a successful brand as part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Guns N’ Roses reunited in 2016 with original band members Rose, Slash, and McKagan with plans to release a new album, Rose’s first since Chinese Democracy. So far, Dr Pepper has not announced what their plans are, if any, should it ever materialize.