It was one of the longest running gags in 2000s rock ’n’ roll: when the hell is Chinese Democracy actually going to come out? The production of Guns N’ Roses’ sixth studio album was both incredibly public and incessantly troubled, with a release that Axl Rose first announced by name back in 1999 not actually dropping until nine years later. Lineup changes, touring commitments and a revolving door of producers led to delay after delay after delay, while anticipation among fans turned to anger, then finally just to schadenfreude.
By 2008, jokes about Chinese Democracy showing up later than actual Chinese democracy had become so mainstream that apparently even Dr Pepper caught wind of them. The soft drinks giant announced on March 26 that should the album actually materialise that year, they’d offer a free can to “everyone in America”. Well, actually… “everyone in America” except ex-guitarists Slash and Buckethead.
“It took a little patience to perfect Dr Pepper’s special mix of 23 ingredients, which our fans have come to know and love,” the company’s director of marketing, Jaxie Alt, said in a statement (via Billboard). “So we completely understand and empathise with Axl’s quest for perfection – for something more than the average album.”
Alt then added, in one of the worst-aged predictions of all time, “We know once it’s released, people will refer to [Chinese Democracy] as ‘Dr Pepper for the ears’ because it will be such a refreshing blend of rich, bold sounds – an instant classic.”
The announcement was so random and out-of-nowhere that it prompted mass confusion. Obviously it was a gambit to get Dr Pepper some press (which worked tremendously at first) but, beyond that, was the brand sarcastically joining in with the jabs against Axl and his band? Or was this a legitimate partnership concocted between both parties behind the scenes? If it was the latter, the plans eluded even Axl himself.
“We are surprised and very happy to have the support of Dr Pepper with our album Chinese Democracy, as for us, this came totally out of the blue,” said a press release on the GNR website, signed by the singer.
“If there is any involvement with this promotion by our record company or others, we are unaware of such at this time. And as some of Buckethead’s performances are on our album, I’ll share my Dr Pepper with him.”
On October 8, Billboard reported that Chinese Democracy would actually, truly be released in 2008: on November 23, to be exact. Even though there were also official GNR posters out on the streets that signalled something was coming on the same day, it still didn’t feel real. The album had previously been scheduled to come out on March 6, 2007, and that date came and went without as much as a note.
But then, on October 22, the song Chinese Democracy was dropped as a single. Better followed on November 17, and the album was getting streamed on Myspace before an actual, proper release on the day the band promised. At last!
Throughout the buildup, Dr Pepper vowed to keep its free-drinks-for-America pledge. The plan was simple: on album release day, people could log into the company’s website and apply for a voucher that they could then exchange to get their free drink.
However, the immense amount of publicity Dr Pepper were relishing in from their GNR gambit backfired. The demand was so great that their site crashed. Despite the brand extending the timeframe of the giveaway and also opening a free phone line for people to claim their vouchers, it was a bit of a shitshow – and the band’s lawyer got mad.
In late November, GNR’s legal representative Alan Gutman wrote an incensed letter to Dr Pepper Snapple Group CEO Larry Young. “Our clients are outraged at your treatment of their fans and the American public in general,” he said, according to Billboard. “This offer was an unmitigated disaster which defrauded consumers and, in the eyes of vocal fans, ‘ruined’ the day of Chinese Democracy's release.”
Gutman went on to call the whole promotional giveaway a “complete fiasco” and added, “It turned out that Dr Pepper did not define ‘everyone in America’ the same way as ‘everyone in America’ defined ‘everyone in America’.”
He then asked for “an appropriate payment” to GNR and demanded a full-page apology be printed in many of the biggest newspapers in the US: The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Dr Pepper responded. “We simply commented on the delayed release of Chinese Democracy and openly encouraged the band to release it before the end of the year,” they said in a statement (via The Guardian). “Axl even expressed support for our efforts earlier in the year. We are disappointed that GNR's lawyers are turning a fun giveaway into a legal dispute.”
After that, things went hideously, awkwardly quiet for a spell. Finally, Axl himself addressed the whole thing in December, responding to a fan’s question during an online Q&A. He expressed surprise over the whole scenario, given he’d asked the GNR camp to instead just focus on the album at hand: “The actions taken so far had nothing to do with me and I was taken off guard as I had specifically told our team: Who fucking cares right now – we have a record to deal with.”
Ultimately, we can only assume Team GNR backed down, as there was never a public apology to the band from Dr Pepper like they’d originally demanded. And, whether or not money exchanged hands behind the scenes, the promotion didn’t make either side look amazing in the end. The lesson here: if there’s ever another GNR album, don’t expect the fizzy drinks industry to be involved in any way, shape or form.