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The Pepsi Commercial Scandal: a Harrier Jet for 7m Labels
The Pepsi Commercial Scandal: a Harrier Jet for 7m Labels

The Pepsi Commercial Scandal: a Harrier Jet for 7m Labels

In 1996, PepsiCo launched a scheme in which customers could save Pepsi labels and redeem them against Pepsi-branded merchandise. The accompanying commercial “joked” that anyone who collected seven million labels would be eligible for a Harrier jump jet.

In November 2022, a docuseries about the case titled «Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?» was released on Netflix.

Drink Pepsi, get a jet? Not quite that easy…

The Promising Advertising Campaign

In the mid-1990s, PepsiCo launched the Pepsi Stuff campaign, a promotional scheme that allowed customers to earn Pepsi Points through the purchase of Pepsi products. The points could be redeemed for merchandise such as T-shirts and leather jackets. To advertise the campaign, Pepsi released a series of commercials, one of which featured a computer-generated Pepsi-branded Harrier jet that could be obtained for 7 million Pepsi Points.

However, Pepsi forgot to add any small print stating that it was a joke: John Leonard, a student, decided to take Pepsi at its word and soon realized that buying seven million cans or bottles of Pepsi would be too expensive. He saw a disclaimer revealing that customers could buy Pepsi Points for 10 cents each. Leonard convinced five investors to lend him $700,000 which he spent on points, sent a check for $700,008.50 and 15 labels to claim the jet, but Pepsi refused the offer, stating that the commercial featuring the jet was “fanciful” and intended to be humorous.

The Lawsuit

After initially being sued by PepsiCo in the Southern District of New York, Leonard filed a lawsuit in Miami accusing PepsiCo of breach of contract, fraud, deceptive and unfair trade practices, and misleading advertising.

In the lawsuit Leonard v. PepsiCo, the plaintiff, John Leonard, claimed that PepsiCo had breached the contract and committed fraud. The case was initially brought to court in Florida but was eventually heard in New York. Among other claims, Leonard argued that a federal judge was unable to decide the case and that instead, a jury consisting of members of the “Pepsi Generation” should be formed to decide the matter. Leonard claimed that the advertisement in question would constitute an offer to this specific group of individuals, aka people growing up in the 90’s.

The Harrier Jet is not yet visible, but the observer senses the presence of a mighty plane as the extreme winds generated by its flight create a paper maelstrom in a classroom devoted to an otherwise dull physics lesson. Finally, the Harrier Jet swings into view and lands by the side of the school building, next to a bicycle rack. Several students run for cover, and the velocity of the wind strips one hapless faculty member down to his underwear. While the faculty member is being deprived of his dignity, the voiceover announces: “Now the more Pepsi you drink, the more great stuff you’re gonna get.”

Wood’s statement of facts, Leonard v. PepsiCo, Inc., 88 F. Supp. 2d 116

But Pepsi never cashed the check from John Leonard, so there was no case for fraud.

In 1999, judge Kimba Wood ruled in favor of PepsiCo. The court found that the advertisement featuring the jet did not constitute an offer under the Restatement (Second) of Contracts and that even if it had been an offer, no reasonable person could have believed that the company seriously intended to convey a jet worth roughly $37.4 million for $700,000. The court also found that the value of the alleged contract meant that it fell under the Statute of Frauds, but the requirement for a written agreement between the parties was not fulfilled, so a contract had not been formed. The court stated that the commercial was “evidently done in jest” and that “no school would provide landing space for a student’s fighter jet, or condone the disruption the jet’s use would cause.” The decision was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which upheld the original ruling.

The company continued to air the commercial, but it updated the cost of the Harrier Jet to 700 million Pepsi Points and added a disclaimer clarifying that it was a joke. The Pentagon stated that the Harrier Jet would not be sold to civilians without being demilitarized, which would have included stripping it of its ability to take off and land vertically.

The Netflix Documentary

A new Netflix series, «Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?» tells the story of Leonard’s battle with PepsiCo. The four-episode series features interviews with Leonard, Todd Hoffman, PepsiCo executives, and other public figures such as Cindy Crawford, as well as reenactments of events. The fourth episode also covers Pepsi’s Number Fever promotional campaign in the Philippines, which resulted in several deaths.

Director Andrew Renzi was initially offered «Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?» as a work of fiction, but he changed his mind and decided to make a documentary after contacting John Leonard, the main subject of the story. Leonard initially turned down several producers who wanted to work with him, but he accepted Renzi’s offer because he felt that Renzi was sincere. The relationship between Leonard and Todd Hoffman, one of the investors who helped Leonard buy Pepsi Points, was a key factor in the series. Michael Avenatti, Leonard’s strategist and legal consultant, filmed his segments while under house arrest.

If you want to know how Pepsi won Halloween, click here!