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Coca-Cola in a race to get people to try Coke Zero

Times Staff Writer

What do the Mir spacecraft, Axl Rose and NASCAR have in common?

They’re all part of publicity stunts that could bring you some free junk food -- and help companies develop relationships with you, Mr. or Ms. Potential Customer.

This weekend, if any of Coca-Cola Co.'s 13 sponsored drivers win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, everyone in America can get a free 20-ounce bottle of Coke Zero by downloading a coupon from the company’s website.

A few months ago, Dr Pepper promised a free soda to everyone in America if Axl Rose puts out a new Guns N’ Roses album in 2008.

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And Taco Bell has tried the stunt twice, most recently during the 2007 World Series, when it offered a free taco to -- you guessed it, everyone in America -- the first time someone stole a base. In 2001, it said everyone in the country would get a free taco if Russia’s Mir spacecraft landed on a 40-foot-square Taco Bell banner floating in the South Pacific. (It didn’t -- no tacos for us!)

This type of marketing is becoming more common as “it gets harder and harder for these companies to break through the clutter and build preferences,” said Mary Jo Sobotka, vice president of integrated media strategy at the Phelps Group, a Santa Monica marketing and communications firm.

It’s a boon for the companies because they get buzz from publicity and traffic to their websites, Sobotka said.

That’s even though the chance of any of these things happening is pretty small. After all, Rose has supposedly been working on the new Guns N’ Roses album for 14 years. And the chances of a spacecraft landing on a 40-by-40-foot logo in the middle of an ocean that measures thousands of miles across are -- well, you do the math.

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Coke says its promotion is different. There are 43 cars in the Coke Zero 400 race Saturday at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. Coca-Cola has 13 drivers in the race, six of whom hold spots in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup Series’ point standings.

After all, spokeswoman Susan Stribling said, Coke really wants to get Coke Zero to customers, in whatever way it can.

“When people taste it,” she said, “they actually really like the brand.”

Even if one of Coke’s drivers does win, it won’t cost the company much, Sobotka said. It’s inexpensive to make Coke Zero, and probably only a fraction of Americans will go to the website, print a coupon and redeem it.

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If it wanted to prevent even that, Coke could follow in the footsteps of Taco Bell (owned by Yum Brands Inc., which was spun off from Coke’s arch-rival PepsiCo Inc.) and make sure that not many people will take it up on the offering.

After a base was stolen in the 2007 World Series, free tacos were available as promised: at participating Taco Bell locations on a Tuesday between 2 and 5 p.m. -- which is too late for lunch and too early for dinner for that target demographic: everyone in America.

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alana.semuels@latimes.co

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