John Leonard’s demand was simple: All he wanted was for Pepsi to deliver the Harrier jet he believed they owed him.
In 1996, Leonard, then a 21-year-old college student, insisted he had amassed enough points given away during one of the soft drink giant’s promotional campaigns to take possession of the aircraft, which cost a staggering $33.8 million and was part of the U.S. military’s air fleet.
The fighter planes were not commercially available, but Pepsi, Leonard argued, had offered one up as a giveaway. Before the saga ended, a judge would be forced to decide whether Pepsi was making a joke or a legally binding offer for the jet—a saga that would grow to include infamous attorney Michael Avenatti and a new Netflix docuseries, Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?
For Leonard, the answer was clear. “[Leonard] thought it was very serious,” his lawyer, Larry Schantz, said. “So did I. We thought it was a big contest and giveaway. The honest point is that the man is entitled to his Harrier jet.”
Pepsi and rival Coca-Cola have been locking horns to vie for market share in the highly lucrative soft drink industry for decades—but sometimes their attempts to capture attention have blown up in their faces. In 1985, Coca-Cola unveiled New Coke, which beat out Pepsi in consumer taste tests, according to the company’s boastful marketing campaign. (On shelves, it bombed.) In 1992, Pepsi held a promotion in the Philippines that ended in disaster when winning numbers on bottle caps were printed in excess, resulting in the original $2 million in prizes ballooning to $10 million.
This constant one-upmanship eventually led to a 1996 promotion in which Pepsi offered prizes (or “Pepsi Stuff”) to consumers who accumulated points from buying Pepsi products. Guzzle enough Pepsi and one might earn a T-shirt, sunglasses, a leather jacket, beach towels, or—if one television spot was to be believed—a Harrier jet.
The air defense jets were part of the United States Marine Corps and were remarkable for their ability to take off and land vertically. Most notably, the planes had been used in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. They were, in short, capable of extreme mayhem.
In the commercial, a student was seen climbing out of the jet in front of his school. “Sure beats the bus,” the actor quipped. A caption on the screen relayed that 7 million Pepsi Points were needed for the prize, vastly more than the dozens or hundreds of points needed for the more pragmatic items. (The aircraft was also seemingly computer-generated in the commercial, lending credence to the idea that perhaps Pepsi did not actually have one to give away.)
John Leonard, then a business student at Shoreline Community College in Washington, saw the ad in late 1995, when it was being tested regionally before rolling out nationally. Accumulating that many points would mean drinking something along the lines of 16,800,000 cans of Pepsi, which Leonard did the math on and determined could be worth the millions of dollars it would cost to buy that much soda; he even created a business plan to attract an investor, but was eventually told the plan was too risky. Later, however, Leonard learned that in addition to being earned through product purchases, Pepsi Points could simply be purchased outright. The cost: 10 cents per point. If the jet required 7 million points, he should be able to buy them for $700,000—an absolute steal for a military-grade aircraft.
In the media, Leonard explained he believed he might be able to monetize the jet by renting it out for thrill rides and air shows. (Flying it himself was unlikely: He had taken just one flying lesson before, and it certainly wasn’t in a military jet.)
Leonard didn’t have that much cash on hand, but with his business plan he managed to convince five investors, including friend Todd Hoffman, to front him the money. He sent Pepsi the minimum required 15 Pepsi Points as well as a check for $700,008.50 for the remainder, which he hand-delivered to the post office where Pepsi’s post office box was located. Then he waited.
As one might imagine, Pepsi did not deliver a plane. Instead, they returned the check to Leonard with a coupon for three free cases of soda and a note explaining the ad was meant to be “fanciful” and “humorous.”
Leonard was not amused. He hired attorney Larry Schantz to draft a lawsuit alleging Pepsi made a fraudulent offer, a copy of which was sent to Pepsi. The company preemptively took Leonard to federal court on July 18, 1996, asking that any claim of Leonard’s be declared frivolous and for Leonard to reimburse them for their legal fees.
That’s when things really took off.
At the heart of the matter was whether a court could be persuaded that Pepsi was making a genuine offer of a Harrier jet for the giveaway. Promotional prizes of cars, vacations, and even houses—like the one offered by Fox in 1997 that was a replica of the abode on The Simpsons—were not unusual. Perhaps Leonard had a case that it was reasonable to think Pepsi was serious about a fighter jet.
Pepsi contended that it was a joke, and an obvious one at that. (To make it even clearer, the company tweaked the ad when it went national so it read “just kidding” and adjusted the number of Pepsi Points needed to 700 million.) Leonard argued otherwise—Pepsi had depicted a jet with a required number of points, which he provided.
Leonard also rejected claims he was simply looking for attention, though he did eventually enlist then-law-student Michael Avenatti, who sought to publicize Pepsi’s perceived failure to honor their offer. (Avenatti, who is best known for representing adult film star Stormy Daniels when she sued then-president Donald Trump in 2018, is currently in federal prison for defrauding Daniels, and was previously convicted in 2020 for attempting to extort Nike.) “I didn’t want any publicity on this,” Leonard told The Seattle Times. “They brought the public light on this. My sole intention was to get the plane. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m not looking for a settlement. I just want a plane.”
There was another wrinkle: the logistics of actually trafficking in Harrier jets. When asked to comment on the imbroglio, Defense Department spokesperson Kenneth Bacon told reporters that neither Leonard nor Pepsi was going to be able to possess a jet without significant modifications to “demilitarize” it by taking away its weapons as well as its ability to take off or land. That would basically render it a very expensive conversation piece.
“Even if the lad were able to get ... a plane from Pepsi, it would not be one he could fly,” Bacon said. He also added the plane gorged itself on between 7 and 11.4 gallons of fuel per minute.
As absolutely radical as it would have been to see Pepsi succumb and deliver a non-working jet, it was not to be. In an August 1999 summary judgment ruling, Judge Kimba Wood of New York’s Southern District Court asserted that Pepsi had made an obvious joke in their faux offer of a Harrier jet. Advertisements, Judge Wood said, were not a contractually binding offer; nor did the opportunity to win a jet appear in writing.
Furthermore, no school was likely to tolerate the disruption of a jet or provide the potential pilot with a landing area for the Harrier, lending credence to Pepsi’s claim it was merely a joke. The whole idea, Wood concluded, was “an exaggerated adolescent fantasy” and ruled in favor of Pepsi.
As unlikely as it seemed that Pepsi would be able to hand over a fighter jet, it apparently wasn’t completely out of bounds for the soda empire to have some military equipment on hand. In 1989, the company arrived at an agreement with the former Soviet Union to accept 17 submarines and three warships as payment for the delivery of Pepsi syrup. (Rubles were not of value to Pepsi internationally, making a barter deal attractive.) The vessels were later sold by Pepsi for scrap.
In the end, the only real mode of transportation available during the Pepsi Stuff campaign was a mountain bike, which would have set Leonard back a far more reasonable 3300 Pepsi Points.
This article first appeared in April 2022; it was updated in November 2022.