Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? is a story definitively not of our times. Not just because it has its genesis in the “cola wars” between market leader Coke and brash upstart Pepsi but because by the standards of 2022, the stakes – apart from the financial, which are really never more than notional throughout – are so remarkably low for everyone involved.
The story is simple. Certainly too simple for a four-part series with a total run time of 147 minutes, though I suppose you could argue if you were really bored (and you might be at several points in this tale) it is playfully mimicking the empty calories and bloating effects of the carbonated beverage at its heart. But the story runs thus: in 1995, Pepsi puts out an ad for merchandise that can be exchanged for Pepsi points collected from drinks cans and bottles – a few hundred get you a T-shirt, 1,400 get you a jacket and so on. And at the end of the ad, it claims you can earn a Harrier jump-jet for 7m points. The every kid who has been collecting the merch is shown landing on his school lawn and grinning: “It sure beats the bus!”. What the ad didn’t show was any kind of disclaimer saying that this wasn’t true. No small print anywhere said that Pepsi would not be providing a $32m militarised aircraft to anyone who managed to collect 7m points.
One guy – because there’s always one guy, is there not? – noticed this. And from that moment, 20-year-old John Leonard became set on extracting a Harrier jump-jet – accepting Pepsi’s offer as legitimate, as he stoutly claimed ever since – from the company. Leonard is a remarkable man, if only for the fact that he is the least annoying version of That Guy there has surely ever been. He is warm, he is charming, he would like the jet as advertised. He gets an eccentric multimillionaire climbing buddy of his named Todd Hoffman (who is a much more standard edition of That Guy) involved, and when they realise that because Pepsi is also allowing the purchase of points for 10 cents apiece – effectively reducing the jet’s cost to $700,000 – the game is truly on and soon turns into a welter of lawsuits and countersuits.
“It was clearly a joke,” says PepsiCo’s then CPO Brian Swette of the ad, wearily and not for the first or even possibly the millionth time, given how long the case dragged on. This remained, in essence, Pepsi’s defence throughout. At first, the soda company’s lawyers assumed Leonard and Hoffman’s claim was essentially a shakedown and offered the boy a million dollar settlement. But Leonard seems genuinely to have wanted only what was promised, because it was promised. Hoffman seems to have wanted only to see the confusion in the lawyers’ eyes as they realised the matter wasn’t open to negotiation.
At one point, Leonard hires Michael Avenatti (now known for representing Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against Trump and for defrauding her thereafter – he is now in prison for that and other felony convictions). Hoffman’s hatred for him is exceeded only by his delight at Avenatti’s current situation. His face glows with happiness as he reports how Leonard eventually balked at Avenatti’s heavy-handed tactics and came back around to Hoffman’s way of thinking, which was to fight it out playground style – “But you promised!” being pretty much the whole argument.
The case made history and is now included in legal textbooks and teaching in the US. As television, it’s absolute gubbins – and very gentle documentary-making indeed. A David and Goliath case in which Goliath has just as reasonable an argument as David and the moral stakes are so low as to be negligible is not the stuff of legend, even if it is of case law. But if you’re up for the viewing equivalent of a can of sweet fizz and empty calories, this will slip down just fine.