“When opportunity presents itself, don’t be afraid to go after it,” was perhaps one 21-year-old college student’s motto in life. When the opportunity to own a Harrier jet presented itself, he was determined to seize it. The asking price of the fighter jet: 7 million Pepsi Points. When he went to claim his dream jet, however, the company refused to give it to him, and that’s when things started to get messy.

Pepsi’s Ad

When the Soviet Union exchanged its warships for Pepsi in the late 1980s, that was not the last time the company dabbled and had an affair with military equipment. From March 28 to October 31, 1996, Pepsi did it again when they ran the Pepsi Stuff program that offered Pepsi items that could be purchased from their catalog using Pepsi points. Buyers could get these points from specially marked Pepsi packages, or alternatively, they could buy points directly from Pepsi.

Their advertisement for the program was through a TV Super Bowl commercial that featured a young man flexing his shirt, leather jacket, and shades, all earned through the Pepsi Stuff program. As each item was shown, their equivalent purchase points were also shown at the bottom of the screen. In the last part of the 30-second clip, the child landed an AV-8 Harrier II jump jet at their school, shocking the students and causing the papers to fly all over the room, before opening its canopy and saying his line, “Sure beats the bus,” and then a text below the screen, “7 million Pepsi Points.” The commercial ended without stating that the Harrier part was merely a joke, thinking no one would take it seriously. Or so they thought.

When Pepsi naively put the allotted Pepsi points for the Harrier, they never really intended to give it to anyone, nor did they really offer the jet in exchange for points. Hence, they put the figures extremely low compared to the jet’s value. They also allowed the buyers to purchase points instead of buying specially marked Pepsi packages directly. These two would be the recipe for disaster that would enable the situation to escalate.

AV-8 Harrier II jump jet

The Harrier jump jet was unique and truly impressive with its vertical/short take-off and landing capabilities (V/STOL) and remained so even after 30 years after its first flight.

It is a jet-powered attack aircraft originally developed by British manufacturer Hawker Siddeley in the 1960s. During its era, many had attempted to design V/STOL aircraft, but only the Harrier became truly successful. Made to operate from improvised bases like car parks or forest clearing, it does not require spacious and vulnerable air bases. Soon, its design was also adapted for use by aircraft carriers.

The first generation version, known as the AV-8A Harrier, was used by air forces like the Royal Air Force and the United States Marine Corps. In the 1980s, the second generation Harrier came out and was manufactured in the United States, called the AV-8B, and in Britain as the British Aerospace Harrier II.

It was no surprise that many enthusiasts in the 1990s were huge fans of the Harrier, one of them was 21-year-old John Leonard. When he saw the Pepsi advertisement asking for 7 million Pepsi points only for the jet that originally cost around 30 million USD, he knew he could not miss the chance of owning one.

The Courtroom War

It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that the bargain was too good to be true, but who knows, right? Seven million Pepsi points would cost him 700,000 USD. At that time, he already had 15 Pepsi Points, so he purchased the remaining 6,999,985 points directly from Pepsi. Once he had the whole 7 million points, he mailed a check for more $700,008.50 to Pepsi with an additional $10 to cover the shipping and handling fee of the Harrier.

John Leonard.
John Leonard. (CBS NEWS)

His excitement died and was replaced with dismay when Pepsi returned the payment and informed him that the advertisement was not real and was simply a joke. Leonard could not simply accept that, so he sued Pepsi, and the two parties went to war in the courtroom in an attempt to settle the case.

At that time, the public was on Leonard’s side, agreeing that the commercial was misleading and deceitful and that they should give Leonard the jet as they advertised. One young boy said, “Well, if he drank that much Pepsi, then he probably should (get the jet).”

Pepsi would not want to back down either. As John Harris of Pepsi-Cola said,

“Tens of millions of Americans, and people around the world, saw the spot, got the joke and laughed… Mr. Leonard saw the spot, hired business advisers and lawyers and decided to take legal action.”

John Harris of Pepsi-Cola. (Pepsi via CBS NEWS)

The court sided with Pepsi and granted a summary judgment in favor of them, ruling that “no objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier Jet.”

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In the dismissal of the case, they also added, “The callow youth featured in the commercial is a highly improbable pilot, one who could barely be trusted with the keys to his parents’ car, much less the prized aircraft of the United States Marine Corps.”

Pepsi did not discontinue its commercial but instead changed the Harrier’s points to 700 million Pepsi Points and added: “Just Kidding.”

Harris wasn’t out of the money as Pepsi never cashed the check so claims of fraud against them never held up, but he was out whatever legal fees he had paid to the lawyers representing him.  Had he actually prevailed, the US government would not have permitted a Harrier jet to be in private hands without it being totally de-militarized which would have included disabling its ability to land and take off vertically as well.

Do you think the kid should’ve been given the Harrier as advertised?