In February of 1996, a twenty year old college student, John Leonard, was watching television at his home in Seattle. During one of the commercial breaks, an advertisement for Pepsi came on the screen. Pepsi was promoting a marketing campaign which involved ‘Pepsi Points.’ The ad was clearly targeted toward children, to get their parents to buy more Pepsi, as well as teenagers, who had disposable income, and could potentially be making the choice between purchasing a Pepsi, or the then industry leader Coke. The voiceover narration of the ad intoned, “The more Pepsi you drink, the more great stuff you get.” For example, for seventy-five points, a person could get a t-shirt; 175 points was the amount needed for a pair of sunglasses; the leather jacket would require someone to turn in 1,450 points, and so on. John Leonard wasn’t interested in clothing or shades. What he wanted was the Harrier jump jet, that was advertised at the end of the commercial, and could be had for 7,000,000 Pepsi points. The reason Leonard felt he could get the jet, if he could come up with the required number of points, is that there was no disclaimer on the bottom of the screen. The fine print, in this case, stating that a member of the general public couldn’t purchase a thirty two million dollar piece of sophisticated military hardware, because it was a joke, wasn’t written on the screen.
The next day, Leonard begins his quest to get the jet. His parents purchase as much Pepsi as their shopping cart can carry. At home, Pepsi is the only drink that the family consumes. When Leonard crunches the numbers, however, he surmised that he and his family would never be able to purchase enough Pepsi to get the requisite amount of points for the jet. Leonard contacts the only person he knows who can get the kind of money he needs to purchase enough Pepsi to acquire the needed points. Leonard’s friend, Todd Hoffman, is an eccentric multimillionaire who has traveled the world over. Even a prognosis from his doctor that he needed surgery, didn’t keep Todd from going on his latest adventure, a scheduled trip to Antarctica.
While Hoffman is initially on board with Leonard, eventually the endeavor proves to be too much. Back at square one, Leonard thinks his chances at getting the jet are over, until a trip to the supermarket reinvigorates his determination. In the back of a Pepsi points catalog, it states that Pepsi is permitting the purchase of points for ten cents each. When Leonard recalculates the cost, the initial cost of 4.3 million dollars goes down to $700,000 dollars. When Leonard relays the news to Hoffman, he’s back on board. A check is cut to Pepsi, and placed in the mail, along with the request to be sent the jet.
When Pepsi finds out what Leonard wants, they are dismissive of him. They can’t believe he took the ad seriously. In fact, they are so convinced that he’s not serious, that they mail the check back to him, along with two vouchers for free Pepsi. Leonard and Hoffman, at that point, could’ve easily backed down to the major corporation, but they forged ahead. They hired legal counsel, Larry Schantz, a Miami based attorney. Eventually, after legal maneuvering, Pepsi makes an offer to settle with Leonard for $750,000 dollars. Leonard, with his heart set on getting the jet, and with Hoffman willing to back him, turns down the offer. From that moment forward things take an interesting turn, which includes the participation of now disgraced lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who was a law school student at the time. He agreed to help Leonard by doing opposition research against Pepsi.
“Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? was directed by Andrew Renzi (Ready for War). The limited series was released worldwide for streaming on Netflix, on November 17, 2022. Parts documentary and history, the four episodes have a runtime of 157 minutes. The series utilizes re-creations, current interviews, as well as archival footage. In addition to Leonard Hoffman, and Avenatti, amongst others, Pepsi executives, Jeff Mordes, the former Chief Operating Officer; Brian Swette, former Chief Marketing Officer; and Michael Patti, the creative director, who came up with the original ad, provide their insight. Further commentary is provided by former super model Cindy Crawford, who was a brand-ambassador for Pepsi, back when the commercial with the jet aired. In addition, Jenna Dolan, a colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and former fighter pilot, who was the first female pilot to fly the Harrier jump jet, lends her expertise to explain how the jet functions.
Had I been in John Leonard’s situation, I know I would’ve taken the money. There is no way, the twenty year old me, would have turned down a $750,000 dollar payment. His actions, while I think foolish, did earn my respect. I applaud him for sticking to his original plan, and going after what he wanted most in the world, at the time. I don’t think he was trying to get one over on Pepsi. My belief is that he felt that Pepsi had advertised the jet, that it was obtainable for the right amount of Pepsi points, and that he was entitled to receive the jet. Throughout the four episodes he comes across as a nice, genuine person. If he had to do it all over again, with the hindsight of age and wisdom, I’m not completely convinced he’d do anything differently. Overall, the series is entertaining for one time viewing.