Million-dollar question

November 27, 2022

Excellent storytelling and direction make the latest Netflix docu-series fun

Million-dollar  question


epsi, where is my jet?” This was John Leonard`s simple but $32 million question to one of the biggest companies in the world.

But let`s revisit 1995, first. Coca-Cola is the leader of the cola industry having as much as 75 percent share in many global markets. Pepsi is striving to make inroads and seems to be taking the lead in creative marketing campaigns. Supermodels like Cindy Crawford are the face of their campaigns and global icons like Michael Jackson are promoting the brand. Drinking Pepsi is the new ‘cool’ thing - a new generation is born - one that will be remembered as the Pepsi Generation. Then Pepsi launches one of the most popular campaigns ever from the company. Drink Pepsi, Get stuff.

So, the deal was simple: Pepsi merchandise (hats, denim and leather jackets, bags, mountain bikes, etc) could be exchanged via Pepsi points collected by buying the drink’s cans and bottles. The main campaign ad ended with a teenager landing a Harrier jump-jet on the school grounds (grinningly saying: “It sure beats the bus!”) which essentially meant among other things: you could win a Harrier jump-jet for 7 million points. What the ad didn’t show was any kind of disclaimer saying that this was a joke. No little asterisk, no small print anywhere saying that Pepsi would not be providing a $32 million militarised aircraft to anyone who did manage to collect 7 million points.

A 20-year-old, John Leonard, saw this ad and its end immediately struck a chord with him. He couldn`t believe his eyes - this looked like a legit way of owning a jet though that meant he needed to drink 190 soft drinks per day for 100 years. Leonard and his mom actually tried to have a go at it but thankfully they soon realised that this effort wasn’t going anywhere, saving their gut from, what I am assuming, would have been irreparable damage.

Enter Todd Hoffman.

Hoffman, a then-40-year-old charismatic millionaire, is always on the lookout for his next adventure. He is a living example of the mantra you only live and die once so make the most of today. A prime example would be him going to Antarctica for his dream climbing adventure than getting his cancer surgery. He befriended Leonard on a mountaineering trip and took on a role of a mentor/ father/ crazy best friend in the former`s life. So when Leonard pitched this crazy idea to him (a fun fact is it turns out our not-so-young-anymore friend Leonard is still presenting new crazy ideas to Hoffman on a regular basis), he is the only one who listens. He makes Leonard play the advertisement half a dozen times and then say let`s do it but not before he asks Leonard to come up with a business plan that asks difficult questions like how to get the jet, what to do with it once you get it, and above all where to park it.

Leonard works on the plan, which means buying 16 million cans and setting up six warehouses to store them. The cost of this venture is estimated at $4.3 million. He even contacts Pentagon to inquire if a civilian can actually buy and hold on to a Harrier jet. With all his eccentricity, this is too much risk even for Hoffman and they back down until Leonard finds a loophole. While browsing through their catalogue, he finds that because Pepsi is also allowing the purchase of points for 10 cents apiece, this effectively reduces the jet’s cost to $700,000 – the game is truly on and soon turns into a welter of lawsuits and countersuits.

Leonard works on the plan, which means buying 16 million cans and setting up six warehouses to store them. The cost of this venture is estimated at $4.3 million. He even contacts Pentagon to inquire if a civilian can actually buy and hold on to a Harrier jet.

Of course, executives at Pepsi and the creative agency think Leonard`s cheque and the letter are a joke but for the next four years both parties are engaged in media, PR and legal wars. “It was clearly a joke,” says PepsiCo’s then CPO Brian Swette in the series - though probably for the millionth time in his last 27 years. Later on, lawyer Mike Avenatti (the Stormy Daniels-Trump saga fame) also enters the scene with some pretty evil ideas on how to malign the brand which tests the Leonard-Hoffman friendship. But they stick together to eventually make it to the courtroom of Judge Kimba Wood in 1999 who puts an end to this long saga by declaring that “no reasonable person could have believed that the company seriously intended to convey a jet.” The end might seem like anti-climax but then again this is how real life is. This is one of the stories that doesn’t have the happy ending you wanted but the journey is about as crazy as its genesis.

Listening to the creative minds behind the campaign, you can sense that they are somewhat still embarrassed by this episode. They simply cannot believe that someone actually went for something they added as an obvious joke. The fight for the jet did the company no favours whatsoever. They were going head-to-head in the Cola Wars in a ruthless manner when a 20-year-old took the driving seat in this David and Goliath story, which is still kind of haunting them 25 years later.

John Leonard is a remarkable man. He is warm, he is charming and he keeps on repeating that he simply wanted his jet otherwise he wouldn’t have walked away from the seven-digit offer from Pepsi. For me, one of the most beautiful moments of the docu-series comes in the last episode when he is tackled with a very tough choice in this journey. His decision speaks a lot about his character as well as about the authenticity of his friendship with Hoffman. He has no regrets but does acknowledge that it might have looked a bit differently to others.

Talking to The Guardian he says: “Looking back on it, it was opportunistic. Absolutely. But that’s not always a negative thing. And back then I wholeheartedly thought that we were going to get the jet. What I struggle with today is how can I have really thought that I was going to get the jet? I’m 48 years old now, and I’m now looking back on it like what kind of person were you, man?”

The rest, as they say, is history - in the literal sense - as the case is now included in legal textbooks and teaching in the US. I remember vividly reading about it as part of our course during my now-forgotten business degree. But revisiting the whole story after such a long time with some excellent storytelling and direction was fun. It might not be the best docu-series you`ll watch but you aren`t going to be bored.

The writer is a digital communication expert and consultant currently working in the public sector. He is the mastermind behind the digital platforms, Sukhan, Mani’s Cricket Myths and Over The Line.1

Million-dollar question