How Pepsi Screwed Everything Up in the 1990s

Photo:  DAVID VAN DER VEEN/AFP (Getty Images)
Photo: DAVID VAN DER VEEN/AFP (Getty Images)

There’s nothing more important than reading the fine print. Whether you’re signing a legal document, buying a toy that runs on batteries, or entering a contest, it’s essential to scour all the copy for the loopholes. Maybe you’re actually signing away the rights to your life story, or maybe the toy doesn’t come with any batteries included. But in 1996, Pepsi ran a promotion that was void of fine print—and got itself into a whole lot of trouble because of it. Now there’s a docuseries on Netflix digging into the Pepsi Stuff lawsuit.

What was Pepsi Stuff?

In 1996, Pepsi launched a campaign called “Pepsi Stuff,” which would allow customers to collect Pepsi Points with every purchase of the product and eventually redeem those points for items in the Pepsi Stuff catalog. The New York Times reported at the time that Pepsi was putting $200 million into the campaign, offering prizes such as T-shirts, hats, denim and leather jackets, bags, and mountain bikes in exchange for Pepsi Points. The slogan “Drink Pepsi, Get Stuff” took over the branding in an attempt to compete with Coca-Cola’s ubiquity during the 1996 Olympics. (Coke was a major sponsor and exclusive soft drinks vendor of that year’s Olympic Games.)

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You would have to drink a lot of Pepsi to score even the lowest prizes in the Pepsi Stuff catalog. Typically one bottle of soda would earn a single point, 12-packs would earn two points, and 24-packs would earn four. A simple T-shirt with the Pepsi logo cost 75 points. So when Pepsi ran a commercial advertising a Harrier Jet as a prize worth 7 million Pepsi Points, the company figured no one would see that as anything other than a joke, or at least an impossibility. But there was no fine print on the commercial stating that the prize wasn’t real, and so one man took it at face value.


Pepsi Harrier Jet Commercial 1

Leonard v. PepsiCo, Inc. and Netflix’s Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?

According to the Netflix docuseries Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?, 21-year-old John Leonard saw the prize in the Pepsi Stuff commercial and created a plan to acquire it. Once he realized that collecting 7 million actual Pepsi points would be impossible, Leonard looked at the fine print on the promotion: In place of product labels, customers could simply buy Pepsi Points for 10 cents each. While you would have to purchase millions of bottles or cans of Pepsi to get to 7 million points, it would cost just $700,000 to get this Harrier Jet at the $0.10 point value—a bargain, since this jet was actually worth $33.8 million at the time.


Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? | Official Trailer | Netflix

Leonard partnered with businessman Todd Hoffman to round up five investors who provided the money, and Leonard then sent in 15 Pepsi Points with a check for $700,008.50. In its initial response, Pepsi sent back the check with two coupons for a free case of Pepsi, including a note that this was meant to be a joke, there was no Harrier Jet to be had. Leonard, armed with the commercial’s lack of clarity, took Pepsi to court.

Ultimately a judge ruled in Pepsi’s favor, but Leonard came out as a hero, and as shown in Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?, Pepsi’s reputation suffered. In addition, the lawsuit resurfaced another promotional mixup that had turned deadly a few years earlier.

In 1993, Pepsi launched a lottery campaign in the Philippines with the tagline “Today, you could be a millionaire!” There were numbers placed under Pepsi bottle caps that each offered a prize, one of which was a jackpot of 1 million pesos. But Pepsi accidentally announced the wrong winning number, one that was printed on as many as 800,000 bottle caps instead of just one. Pepsi refused to pay any of it, causing riots aimed at Pepsi plants, offices, and trucks that resulted in the deaths of at least five people, The Seattle Times reported.

Over the course of four episodes, Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? digs deep into the Pepsi Stuff lawsuit, the Philippines scandal, and other hits to the Pepsi name. And while the Netflix docuseries is overly long for the material it covers, it’s a fascinating look at how a major beverage corporation screwed up a promotional campaign so badly not just once, but twice, and still went on to try it again as recently as 2019. Maybe it’s time for the company to stop running contests and focus on being a better soda (no Peeps included, please).


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