For kids in the ‘90s, it was the stuff of legend: Collect enough Pepsi Points during a promotion called Pepsi Stuff and you could get a Harrier jet, as prominently shown in the commercials, and one kid really did it. He was out there somewhere, flying a VTOL jet to school and saying “eh eh eh eh eh eh eh!” when he pretended to fire its machine guns. He was a hero.
As it turns out, though, no kid ever really won the Harrier, but one kid—who was actually in his 20s at the time—certainly tried. The Hustle has a write-up on the saga of John Leonard, who was in college in 1996 when the Pepsi Stuff campaign started and realized that, due to a loophole in the rules, getting the 7 million Pepsi Points required for the Harrier wouldn’t actually be too difficult. Basically, as long as you submitted 15 points from Pepsi products (the equivalent of three 12-packs), you could send Pepsi a check for more points at the rate of 10 cents each. So Leonard raised $700,000 or so and sent it to Pepsi along with a request for one Harrier-brand fighter jet, and Pepsi turned him down. In a letter he got back, along with his check and some free Pepsi coupons, the company indicated that the jet was “fanciful” and meant to “create a humorous and entertaining ad.”
Leonard didn’t buy that, though. He lawyered up and took Pepsi to court, resulting in a years-long legal battle that finally ended in 1999 when a judge said that the ad was obviously a joke and declined to force Pepsi to give Leonard a jet. It’s an interesting story of a “this would be funny” prank gone wrong, and the full details in the Hustle page certainly make for a fun tale (especially to anyone who remembers how cool that Pepsi Harrier was in the commercials). Here’s the thing, though: Hustle pulled together a bunch of quotes from Leonard at the time, and he repeatedly insists that he’s “not trying to make a statement” and “not looking for a settlement,” he just wants his darn Harrier jet.
All due respect to Leonard for putting a lot of work into a good gag, but that’s absolute bullshit. Want to know how he raised the $700,000 to buy the Pepsi Points? He did it by doing research on advertising law and by talking to “wealthy clients” he met while working as a climbing instructor. This wasn’t a young man scrounging for pennies because he wanted a jet, this was a young man who knew that Pepsi hadn’t explicitly said “the jet is not a real prize,” and so by fulfilling the stated requirements from the commercial to get the jet, he knew he could put Pepsi in an awkward position. Hustle says he had already spent $4,000 consulting with lawyers and ad experts by the time Pepsi had sent its initial refusal, so why do that if you honestly think Pepsi is going to send you a jet?
Furthermore, the Simpsons episode “Bart Gets An Elephant,” in which this same basic thing happens and Bart forces a radio station to give him the obvious joke prize after he wins a contest (in this case, an elephant), aired in 1994. That’s two years before the Pepsi Stuff campaign. We don’t know if John Leonard watched The Simpsons at the time, but if the idea of obvious joke prizes was already in the pop culture zeitgeist, he really should’ve known better. (“Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming,” the episode where Milhouse pretends to fly a Harrier jet, also aired before this all happened.)
Really, though, everything worked out just fine for everyone involved. The Pepsi Stuff campaign was a huge hit, and Hustle says Leonard now works for the National Park Service—where, if this website is to be trusted, he makes at least $120,000 a year. Surely that means he can afford to pick up a used Harrier.