Ken Jennings

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November 15, 2010

In all the annals of badly planned consumer contests and sweepstakes, my favorite is Pepsi’s “The Name Game” of 1983. You could win a cash prize for spelling your surname using the letters printed on the inside of Pepsi bottlecaps and pop tops. Pepsi’s plan was to control the number of winners by controlling the number of vowels: nearly all the printer letters were, yes, consonants. No vowels, no surnames, right?

Take a minute to consider what could possibly go wrong with this setup.

I imagine none of you are highly-paid marketing consultants, and yet I bet you figured it out. There are some non-Anglo-Saxon surnames that are vowel-less, and what if they drink Pepsi? (This could be a good case study for a business class on the costs of pooh-pooh-ing diversity, come to think of it.)

I assumed the big winners would be Cantonese speakers named “Ng,” but the guy who got the headlines was one Richard Vlk of Pittsburgh. (Vlk is a not-uncommon Czech surname meaning “wolf.”) Vlk collected his name 1,393 times, enough to win over twenty thousand dollars. I’m not sure what he did with all the Pepsi he bought; Vlk is a diabetic and couldn’t drink soda.

Why did a Vlk outplay all the Ngs? I’m not sure the Chinese surname was so common in the U.S. in 1983. U.S. census totals for 1980 aren’t available, but there were roughly twice as many Ngs per capita in 2000 as there were in 1990. It jumped from being America’s 2,332nd most common last name all the way up to the 1169th spot. Even if there was a large Ng population in 1983, it’s clear that nobody at Pepsi had met one. They Might Be Giants’ single “Ana Ng” was still five years away.

A quick Internet search reveals that Mr. Vlk is still apparently alive and well and living in a suburb just west of Pittsburgh. When I saw his phone number, I was tempted to call and say hi. That’s a great (and maybe little used) function of the Internet: the ability to track down in 30 seconds or less all these great “news of the weird” 15-minutes-of-fame people from decades past.

If enough other people out there do the same thing, I guess I better keep my number unlisted in years to come…

Posted by Ken at 11:49 am