How Pepsi Fought a Lawsuit over a Harrier Jet Contest Prize

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Money can't buy happiness. Neither can Pepsi Points, according to the Southern District Court of New York. (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class Zachary Behrend)

Harrier Jump Jets are pretty awesome to see in action. That vertical take-off capability was enough to make any red-blooded American student in the 1990s join the Marine Corps just to get behind the controls of one.

John Leonard wasn’t about to join the Corps to fly one. He saw a Pepsi Super Bowl commercial in 1996 that offered him the same chance for just seven million “Pepsi Points.” Leonard did what any good business student would have done: a cost-benefit analysis.

He found a loophole in the contest rules that would allow him to purchase the jet without getting millions of Pepsi Points, so that’s what he did. But when he sent in for the jet, Pepsi-Cola told the 21-year-old Leonard that it was all a joke.

Leonard didn’t see it that way.

In the mid-1990s, PepsiCo unveiled its “Pepsi Stuff” catalog, beginning with a Super Bowl commercial that featured a number of real items consumers could buy, complete with how many Pepsi Points each item cost.

The commercial ends with a teenager landing a Harrier jet at his high school, revealing a cost of 7 million Pepsi Points. While much of the world saw the fighter for the joke it was supposed to be, Leonard saw his new fighter aircraft.

Harriers had been around for 30 years by the time Pepsi joked about giving one away. In the United States, Harriers were used by Marine Corps aviators as a strike and air defense fighter. It was unique among aircraft because of its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities.

It also looks really cool during its vertical take-off and landings, which is probably how it ended up in a Pepsi commercial in the first place. In using the Harrier as a gag prize, Pepsi made two critical errors. The first error was making the Harrier so relatively cheap, even in terms of Pepsi Points.

Pepsi’s second critical error was allowing consumers to send in a certain amount of actual Pepsi Points and then paying cash for the rest of the necessary points. Leonard went that way with it. He raised $700,000 and picked up 15 Pepsi Points, then mailed it all in with an extra $10 for shipping and handling.

Pepsi said the ad was just a joke and returned the certified check, but Leonard wanted his Harrier jet. Pretty soon, it all stopped being funny for everyone. The lawsuit wouldn’t be decided until 1999.

"Tens of millions of Americans, and people around the world, saw the spot, got the joke and laughed," John Harris of PepsiCo said at the time. "Mr. Leonard saw the spot, hired business advisers and lawyers and decided to take legal action."

Public sentiment was decidedly in favor of Leonard getting his Harrier jet, but the Southern District of New York would be the decider in the end. It ruled in favor of Pepsi.

“No objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier Jet,” the court said. “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."

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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