Remember When Some Dude Sued Pepsi for a $33 M Fighter Jet?

The ’90s were wild. Like, really wild. So wild, in fact, that some dude sued Pepsi, the drink people, for false advertising. The settlement he and his lawyer were fighting for was a $33,000,000 Harrier Fighter Jet. The craziest part is that Pepsi kind of led people to believe that if we drank enough Pepsi, the company would give us the piece of heavy-duty military equipment. As I said, wild. 

A British Royal Navy Harrier jump-jet, taking off
A British Royal Navy Harrier jump-jet, taking off | MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP via Getty Images

Does Pepsi owe you a fighter jet? 

I won’t presume to know the relationship you, dear reader,  have with Pepsi Co., but chances are Pepsi doesn’t owe you anything, much less a weapon of war. However, that doesn’t mean that Pepsi hasn’t been worried that it might have to buy someone a fighter jet before. Strap in; this is a wild one. 

Pepsi was sued in hopes of getting the plaintiff a literal Harrier fighter jet

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It all started when Pepsi launched a new marketing campaign that featured a wonderfully ’90s commercial. The new campaign was a common trend during the period where companies would incentivize customers to buy more products by offering points that would eventually earn them “free” stuff. 

As The Hustle explains, the commercial opens with a teenager wearing a Pepsi shit with text on the screen reading, “T-SHIRT 75 PEPSI POINTS.” The next shot shows the same teen sauntering through a doorway wearing a leather jacket with the screen reading, “LEATHER JACKET 1,450 PEPSI POINTS.” Immediately following the leather jacket’s point cost, the teenager throws on some very-’90s blue-tinted sunglasses accompanied by more test reading, “SHADES 175 PEPSI POINTS.” 

The prizes get grander as the commercial spot continues. The narrator chimes in — “The more Pepsi you drink, the more great stuff you’re gonna get!” Smash cut to the teen landing a CGI Harrier fighter jet in front of his high school, blowing the clothes off a bewildered principal in the parking lot. Radical, dude! 

Here’s the kicker, as the tubular teen climbs out of his new ride, the text pops up again, reading, “HARRIER FIGHTER … 7,000,000 PEPSI POINTS.”  

Someone actually saved up 7,000,000 Pepsi Points

You could get many items for your hard-earned Pepsi Points – 53 items, to be exact. Notably, the $33M Harrier Jet wasn’t one of them despite the national commercial’s strange promise. 

While most figured the jet was nothing more than silly marketing, one guy in Seattle set his sights on it. Then a 21-year-old business student, John Leonard, set to work on copping his fighter jet. Leonard knew from his interest in planes that the Harrier had incredible capabilities, including vertical takeoff and landing, could carry 10k lbs of bombs, and cost $33M to manufacture. The Harrier was known as the “most captivating and the most dangerous plane in the US military.” That said, this machine was clearly not offered to civilians under any circumstances. However, Pepsi had seemingly promised it. 

The folks at The Hussle worked the numbers the same as Leonard did. Leonard claimed to be a “10-can-a-day guy.” But even with this insane Pepsi consumption, Leonard has his work cut out for him. 

According to The Hussle, each 12-pack of Pepsi was worth 5 points, meaning he’d have to consume 16.8m cans to reach his mark. That worked out to be: 

  • 46k cans every day for one year
  • 552k total ounces of Pepsi
  • 2.5B calories and 689m grams of sugar
  • ~$4m in expenditure

However, Pepsi also allowed customers to buy points outright for $.10 each. The math worked to 7M points would cost $700k. That’s a lot of cash, but nothing compared to the prize promised. By March of 1996, Leonard mailed in the required 15-point minimum from bottles and cans and a check for $700,008.50. 

Nice try, dude

Within weeks, Pepsi sent back the check and some pity coupons with a letter explaining that the jet in the commercial was purely “fanciful.” 

After seeking legal help and pursuing litigation, Leonard received another letter from the VP of PepsiCo’s advertising firm used for the Pepsi Stuff campaign. The letter read, “I find it hard to believe that you are of the opinion that the Pepsi Stuff commercial really offers a new Harrier Jet,” he wrote back. “No reasonable person would agree with your analysis of the commercial.”

Did Pepsi give him a fighter jet?

As you might have guessed by now, Pepsi and Leonard fought a 3-year legal battle that ended with Judge Kimba Wood of New York’s Southern District Court. The judge made quick work of the 3-year battle by ruling firmly in favor of the drink people. 

Sadly for Leonard, no Harrier Jet was coming for him unless he enlisted. To add insult to injury, a Defense Department spokesman clarified that a fully demilitarized jet probably wouldn’t have been much fun, anyway. “Even if the lad were able to get the plane from Pepsi, it would not be one he could fly,” the official said at a Pentagon briefing

Aside from the intended purpose and success of the Pepsi Stuff campaign, Leonard undoubtedly helped make this the most successful marketing scheme ever run by the blue-can folks. 

Although Leonard got worked in court, he won the moral victory. Pepsi altered the commercial to show the “cost” of points needed for the jet at 700m points and even added a “just kidding” for good measure.

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