It’s undeniable, PepsiCo had the best commercials in the 1990s, featuring stars like Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears and Shaq.
Now a new Netflix documentary series, Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? chronicles the chaos that was the “Pepsi Stuff” commercial, and how a man from Seattle, and now-famous attorney Michael Avenatti, tried to get a Harrier Jet from the company.
In 1996, Pepsi was in the height of the cola wars with competitor Coca-Cola when they decided to create their biggest commercial ever, titled “Pepsi Stuff,” promoting the use of “Pepsi Points.” Essentially, the public could get points for buying Pepsi, which could then be redeemed for different items, things like jackets, t-shirts and sunglasses.
The commercial showed a young person sporting all the Pepsi products, with the number of points needed to get those items identified below. The “big finish” was the star of the commercial flying down on a Harrier Jet, with 7 million points written below it on the screen. Notably, there wasn't a disclaimer saying that, if someone accumulated that many points, they couldn’t actually get the jet.
In comes 20-year-old John Leonard from Seattle who was determined get those points for the jet.
“To me, money was freedom,” Leonard says in the documentary.
He figured out that the jet was valued at about US$32 million, but he needed around US$4.3 million for his plan to get that many points, which of course the community college student couldn’t get on his own. On a trip as a junior mountain climbing guide, Leonard met Todd Hoffman, who was in his 40s, and the pair shared a bond for adventure.
Hoffman was Leonard’s first call and presented a business plan to get the Harrier Jet, which Hoffman didn’t think was a secure investment. But then, Leonard found a loophole. In Pepsi’s catalogue, which listed out all the prizes people could cash in their points for (which did not include the jet), it said that you could buy Pepsi points for 10 cents a piece, as long as you submitted a minimum of 15 points. That means Leonard only needed US$700,000 for the jet.
That’s when Hoffman bought into the plan and supplied the money to send the Pepsi, which resulted in Leonard receiving a letter and a voucher from the company.
“It was meant to be a joke. For your troubles here’s a coupon for two cases of Pepsi,” Leonard reads from the letter in the documentary series.
In Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?, the debate begins about whether the jet at the end of the commercial was “obviously” a joke, or if Leonard’s argument that this was a “legitimate offer” made on TV was correct.
'The Spin Doctor' Michael Avenatti
When Pepsi sued Leonard, that’s when things take a turn in the story.
Through Leonard’s lawyer, Larry Schantz, he met Michael Avenatti. Avenatti is now famous for representing Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against former U.S. president Donald Trump, and for his conviction after attempted extortion of Nike. Back in the 1990s when he met Leonard, Avenatti was just a 26-year-old law student, but still boasts about the combination of legal, media and research knowledge he had at the time.
Comically, Avenatti is introduced in the docuseries as “The Spin Doctor” with a series of clips and media headlines, paired with the song “I Wish” by Skee-Lo, with famous lyrics that go, “I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller.”
It’s now 1997 and Leonard, who ended up having a close friendship with Avenatti, describes him as “scrappy,” while Hoffman, who never saw eye-to-eye with Avenatti, says “he steps over the line as a human being.”
Doing interviews for the docuseries while under house arrest in California, Avenatti maintains that Leonard was “outmaneuvered” legally against Pepsi. Avenatti recalls that the best approach at that point was a “full-court press with the media,” with Leonard doing countless interviews about his case to get the Harrier Jet.
As part of Avenatti’s research work, he discovered a Canadian Pepsi connection that peaked his interest. While the American version of the commercial didn’t have a disclaimer, the Canadian version did have one about the unavailability of the jet. The argument then became, Pepsi wanted its targeted, younger consumers to actually believe they could get the Harrier Jet.
So was that the case? A large part of trying to answer that question comes from Michael Patti, former creative director for Pepsi's ad agency BBDO Worldwide, who developed the original idea for the commercial. Showing an original sketch in the docuseries, the first version didn’t display 7 million points, it was actually 700 million points, but the feedback was that the bigger number was “hard to read.” Patti maintains that if that larger number had been used, this whole situation would have been avoided.
Leonard’s Harrier Jet story is infamous, it’s basically become as famous and recognizable as the 1990s star-studded ads. That enticing nature of the narrative carries over into Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? The story is just bizarre, amplified by the fact that the equally as odd Avenatti was so much a part of this process, which in hindsight in 2022, doesn't seen that unbelievable.
The docuseries may not necessarily leave you feeling one side's argument is more valid, but it certainly taps into the flashy, playful and juvenile nature of what Pepsi’s 1990s advertising strategy was all abou.