In 1995, John Leonard was a 20-year-old college student near Seattle who was part-time coaching little league football and dreamed of a future in business. Then an empty soda bottle changed his life forever.
Leonard’s unusual journey is the subject of the new Netflix documentary series Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?. Premiering on Thursday. It shows how he rose up against one of the biggest companies in the world because of an offbeat offer in a TV commercial.
In the mid-1990s, the cola wars were heating up. To get jaded Gen Xers to prefer Coca-Cola, Pepsi introduced the concept of Pepsi Points redeemable for merch. After years of lofty slogans, the ad was surprisingly blunt: “Drink Pepsi, Get Stuff.”
A fountain drink earned one point, a 2 liter bottle earned two points, and a 12-pack earned five points. Prizes included baseball caps (60 points) and t-shirts (80 points) with some big ticket items like mountain bikes (thousands). An upbeat TV ad went so far as tout that a military-grade Harrier jet could be had for a whopping 7,000,000 points.
The hilarious commercial didn’t contain any disclaimers, fine print, or legal notices telling viewers it was all a joke. Leonard was obsessed with getting enough points to get the fighter jet.
“I was starting to think, gosh, how could you actually make this work,” Leonard said. “But I can’t bring it about. And I had to find a crazy partner for the deal. And luckily, I happen to know someone who is a good match for me.”
He called Todd Hoffman, a longtime friend who had already had considerable success in the business. The two had met on a mountaineering expedition, and Hoffman saw himself as a sort of professional mentor to Leonard. When the younger man explained his Pepsi ambitions, Hoffman said he was in.
He said he would help him get the jet and together they would start a company to lease the plane and rent it out for air shows, filming and other events. To make sure her ambitions were kosher, Leonard hopped on the phone to Boeing and the Pentagon and, under the guise of a school project, asked if a civilian could actually own a Harrier jet.
Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon told the young entrepreneur that as long as the plane was unarmed and lacked radar jamming technology, the answer was yes.
Hoffman had Leonard draw up a detailed business plan, and they got to work. Accumulating the 7 million proved nothing short of an ordeal.
Leonard’s first idea was a bottle deposit racket that required six warehouses, multiple trucks and a team of drivers to purchase and store the bottles over a period of months. The estimated cost was $3.4 million and would require 16 million drinks. Hoffman sent his young protégé back to the drawing board.
Then, when Leonard was flipping through a Pepsi catalog at a supermarket near his home, he found a gap in the fine print. Pepsi Points, it was said, could be purchased for ten cents each.
Just like that, Leonard’s plan finally – and easily – got wings.
All that stood in the way of his dream now was a check for $700,008.50 — the specific number considering the handful of Pepsi points the two had already accumulated — which Hoffman happily wrote.
After weeks of anxiously waiting, the check was returned in the mail with a note from Pepsi headquarters telling the couple that the Harrier jet’s inclusion in the commercial was nothing more than a joke. For their effort, they received a handful of free soda coupons.
Neither Leonard nor Hoffman were inclined to take no for an answer. They recruited Miami attorney Larry Schantz to send a letter urging Pepsi to fulfill their agreement.
Schantz hadn’t even gotten around to mailing the letter when the soda giant filed a lawsuit in New York in 1996, asking the court for a declaratory judgment that it was not obligated to provide Leonard and Hoffman with a Harrier jet .
The Offer, Michael Avenatti, and a Trial
Schantz scrambled to his feet and immediately counterclaimed, simply arguing that since there was no fine print or disclaimers in their commercial, Pepsi was obligated to produce the jet as clearly stated.
At the same time, the company showed signs of uncertainty in its ad. In the docuseries, Michael Patti, then creative director at BBDO Worldwide, the ad agency that developed the campaign for PepsiCo, revealed that concerned executives twice asked him to rework the commercial.
The first time, they changed the number of points required to secure the Freijet from 7,000,000 to 700,000,000 — the more absurd number Patti originally suggested. In the second revision, the now sky-high number was followed by a bracketed “just kidding”.
The changes, says Patti, are “an admission of guilt.”
Soon after, Pepsi offered Leonard and Hoffman a $750,000 settlement, but Leonard said no. He wanted that damn jet.
“Sure, of course, [I would have settled]’ Leonard said. “But it still gives me a kick that I had the chutzpah back then to actually come to that conclusion. It probably wasn’t the wisest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
A young aspiring attorney named Michael Avenatti joined her cause and briefly handled media relations for the case.
“I thought we could get the jet,” Avenatti says in the documentary. “We had to exert public pressure through some aggressive PR campaigns. A full court press with the media.”
Ultimately, a judge rules in Pepsi’s favor, saying no sane person would believe a Harrier jet could be attained by claiming Pepsi reward points.
“The judge came out with that kind of derogatory verdict — arrogant, overbearing,” Hoffman said.
Though they didn’t get their jet — or a fat severance pay — Leonard and Hoffman made an impression, leading to an era where disclaimers are an integral part of many commercials.
“Twenty-five years later, that’s what everyone in law school is studying,” director Andrew Renzi told the Post. “One could argue that this was perhaps the biggest thing that happened in the Coke Wars. Advertising has changed forever.”
Hoffman is retired and has been battling cancer since the fall of 2021. He is soon planning a five week trip to India where he will do nothing but explore and adventure.
Leonard now lives in Washington, DC with his wife, two children and a third on the way. He oversees law enforcement and rescue services for the National Park Service.
“I’m a procrastinator,” he said. “Or let’s say nice, I’m a late bloomer.”
https://nypost.com/2022/11/16/netflix-documentary-pepsi-wheres-my-jet-premieres/ Premiere of the Netflix documentary “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet”.