In the 1990s Pepsi ran an advertisement campaign for their new Pepsi Points, which could be collected and used to purchase items in their catalog. The catalog contained mostly common items like t-shirts and accessories, but in one commercial, they showed a child landing a Harrier jet on school grounds.
The price of the Harrier? 7 million Pepsi Points.
However, when one John Leonard gathered enough money to acquire the jet, Pepsi revealed that the prize was not real, resulting in a legendary lawsuit between one of the world’s biggest soft drink manufacturers and a 21-year-old determined to own a Harrier jet. This was not Pepsi’s first time dabbling with military equipment.
Like so many enthusiasts in the 1990s, John Leonard was a big fan of the unique Harrier jump jet. Its vertical take-off and landing capabilities were impressive, even 30 years after its first flight.
Pepsi Stuff Commercial
From March 28, 1996, to October 31, 1996, Pepsi ran the Pepsi Stuff program that offered purchasable items in the Pepsi Stuff catalog. Pepsi Points were used to purchase the items. The points could be gained from specially marked Pepsi packages or purchased directly from Pepsi.
To advertise the program, Pepsi played a Super Bowl commercial that featured a child wearing a t-shirt, jacket, and glasses all earned through the Pepsi Stuff program. As each item of clothing was shown (all of which were real items in the catalog), its value in Pepsi Points appeared at the bottom of the commercial.
The 30-second clip ends with the child landing an AV-8 Harrier II jump jet at their school, opening the canopy to triumphantly state “Sure beats the bus.”
According to the commercial, the Harrier was worth 7 million Pepsi Points, but it did not explicitly state that the Harrier segment was a joke, assuming no one would take it seriously.
Pepsi had, perhaps naively, put the claimed price of the Harrier extremely low, as it was never an item they could actually give away. They also allowed for the direct purchase of Pepsi Points as an alternative to having to source them from Pepsi products. It was these two reasons that enabled the situation to escalate.
At that time, a Harrier was worth around $30 million, while 7 million Pepsi points were worth around $700,000. The 21-year-old Leonard saw the advertisement and realized he had an opportunity to own a military jet at a massively discounted price. Unfortunately, he had failed to understand that the Harrier prize was a joke.
Leonard exploited the directly purchasable Pepsi Points loophole to quickly acquire the prize. He had 15 Pepsi Points and raised $700,000 for the remaining 6,999,985 points. He mailed the lot over to Pepsi with a further $10 to cover the shipping and handling fee.
But Pepsi returned the payment, claiming that the advertisement was simply a joke. The two parties then went to war in the courtroom to settle the matter.
The public at the time was on Leonard’s side, agreeing that the advertisement, while intended to be a joke, could be misleading and that he should be given the Harrier he was owed.
Instead of playing the situation into something beneficial for them, Pepsi refused to back down.
“Tens of millions of Americans, and people around the world, saw the spot, got the joke, and laughed,” John Harris of PepsiCo said during the battle. “Mr. Leonard saw the spot, hired business advisers and lawyers, and decided to take legal action.”
While the public backed Leonard, the court was decidedly on Pepsi’s side, stating that the commercial was puffery as no reasonable person could have truly believed such an expensive piece of equipment could be acquired for such a low price.
The court also added that “The callow youth featured in the commercial is a highly improbable pilot, one who could barely be trusted with the keys to his parent’s car, much less the prized aircraft of the United States Marine Corps.”
After the battle, Pepsi continued to air the commercial, but hiked up the Harrier’s price from 7 million Pepsi Points to 700 million, and added the disclaimer “Just Kidding.”