As you get ready to take in Super Bowl ads, let this 1996 “CBS Evening News” story serve as a reminder to not believe every spot you see – especially if it involves winning a fighter jet.
In the mid-90s Pepsi-Cola was airing its Pepsi Stuff promotional campaign when one of its commercials sparked a legal controversy. Pepsi was suddenly caught with its foot in its mouth while having its tongue in cheek.
The campaign was simple, reported CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. Buy Pepsi products, collect points from Pepsi labels and claim prizes like t-shirts, sunglasses, or – for 7 million points – a Harrier Jet.
“Sure beats the bus,” says the actor in the commercial, while landing on a campus in a computer animated jet. That scene would later prove to be key in sorting the ensuing legal debacle.
Pepsi’s spot caught the eye of John Leonard, a 21-year-old business student at the time who was only interested in one prize.
“People say, ‘well didn’t you want a t-shirt?’ and I say, well when there’s a Harrier out there for 7 million Pepsi points why not aim your sights a little higher,” said Leonard.
Leonard noticed some fine print. In place of labels, consumers could buy Pepsi points for ten cents each. He did the math and quickly figured out that it’d take him $700,000 to buy the Pepsi points he needed for the Harrier Jet. Then Leonard hit the phones and convinced five well off investors to give him the $700,000.
“He sent Pepsi 15 labels and a check and waited for his jet,” reported John Blackstone.
The jet, though, never came. Pepsi’s response: the ad was just a joke.
“Tens of millions of Americans, and people around the world, saw the spot, got the joke and laughed,” said John Harris of Pepsi-Cola. “Mr. Leonard saw the spot, hired business advisers and lawyers and decided to take legal action.”
But Pepsi went to court first asking that Leonard’s claim be declared frivolous. That prompted Leonard to file his own lawsuit demanding the jet.
“People point out that this Pepsi generation they’re trying to sell to is me,” said Leonard.
John Harris of Pepsi-Cola
“Someone who’s taking advantage of the legal system doesn’t really typify the Pepsi generation,” countered Harris.
So the question became: Was John Leonard among the best and brightest of the Pepsi generation, or was he just a nuisance? Blackstone posed the question to several folks on the street who seemed to all support Leonard.
“I think he should get the jet,” said one man.
“Well if he drank that much Pepsi than he probably should,” said a young boy.
“Maybe he is goofy but I mean they are making those claims, if they can’t back them up then they shouldn’t be putting them on air,” said another man.
A customer like Leonard should be celebrated, not sued, said advertising executive David Verklin.
“You have a guy here who’s done something pretty clever,” said Verklin. “I’d give him a tour across the country in a harrier jet. I’d turn it into a TV commercial.”
Pepsi did no such thing. Beyond its legal action, it updated its commercial by raising the number of points needed for the jet from 7 million to 700 million.
In the end, Leonard’s lawsuit fizzled out. A court granted a summary judgment in favor of Pepsi and ruled that, “no objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier Jet.”
The court also added this gem of a reason in its dismissal of the case: “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 prize aircraft of the United States Marine Corps.”
And that’s the way it was on Thursday, August 8, 1996.