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Pepsi, Where's My Jet?


The Harkey Group's Scott Harkey on the Netflix docuseries and what brands (and agencies) can learn from it

Pepsi, Where's My Jet?

I have a feeling lots of folks are going to stream the new Netflix docuseries "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?" this holiday season - and while they'll appreciate the quirky storyline, I can tell you first-hand there's nothing like watching it through the eyes of someone who works in advertising.

Before we get into my assessment of the mid-'90s campaign and eventual fallout, some quick backstory on this four-part deep dive and what sparked the Leonard v. Pepsico, Inc. court case of 1999.

Back in 1996, John Leonard was a 21-year old business student in rural Washington. He was also a Pepsi brand enthusiast with a keen attention to detail, immediately picking-up on the lack of a disclaimer in the famous 'Drink Pepsi Get Stuff' commercial. Upon this revelation, Leonard's curious mind started working overtime in an effort to acquire the far-fetched grand prize, an AV-8 Harrier II jet

The commercial offered the military-grade airplane (valued at $37.4m at the time) for 7,000,000 points - a number that all Pepsi executives assumed would be insurmountable and unfathomable to younger Generation X and Millennial viewers and customers.

Leonard quickly proved he wasn't a run-of-the-mill Gen Xer and started putting together a plan to redeem the grand prize, while his peers were content turning themselves into walking billboards - trading Pepsi Points for t-shirts, hats, sunglasses, or at most, a coveted leather jacket

The college student wound up putting together a business plan which required $4.3 million to purchase and store a bevy of Pepsi products, which would give him the 7,000,000 points to bring home the Harrier jet. This was a game plan that friend and mentor Todd Hoffman struck down as too risky an investment, seemingly ending the far-fetched quest.

Defeated, Leonard let the dream die for the next couple of weeks. Until a chance encounter with the Pepsi swag catalogue at a local convenience store. A quick read of the fine print mentioned an opportunity for customers to buy as many points for 10 cents apiece, after a minimum of 15 points were accrued from actual Pepsi product purchases.

The result? A revised business plan that only required a $700,000 investment for points and no grandiose warehouse plan to store countless palates of Pepsi.

Leonard re-reached out to Hoffman. The clever plan was back in action and the two disruptors cut a $700,000 check (plus $8.50 for shipping and handling!), hand-delivered it to the post office box in Young America, Minnesota and sat back waiting on the soda giant's response.

The middle episodes of the docuseries got into the nitty-gritty of the story. Pepsi executives recalling their version of events and the company's attempts to settle with Leonard, while defending the spot's intent. But my interest was piqued every time the story cut back to former BBOO Worldwide creative director Michael Patti and his recollection of the campaign.

For the non-advertising folks, New York-based BBDO (Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn) has forever been an industry titan with a who's who list of clients. And if you were Pepsi's main agency during the 'Cola Wars' in the '80s and '90s, you were undoubtedly "the right one, baby."

Coca-Cola was on top at the time and when you're #1, you forge ahead with no need to even mention #2. If you're #2 -which Pepsi was at the time- it's your job to go after #1 and to brainstorm how to knock them from their perch.

For context's sake, Pepsi internally came up with 'The Pepsi Generation' campaign in the 1960s: the brainchild of the late Alan Pottasch and one of the first, best-known instances of lifestyfe marketing. The brand took the risky move of siding with the younger generation of cola drinkers, while Coca-Cola leaned on the Norman Rockwell-version of America to appeal to an older audience, until eventually pivoting.

Coca-Cola's agency McCann Erickson responded in the early 1970s with their play on the hit song, 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing' - The catchy melody reworked into, 'I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke', with the jingle aimed at twenty-somethings who felt their music spoke to them and defined them.

Pottasch and Pepsi answered big in the '80s with 'The Choice of a New Generation' campaign, upping the ante with A-list, on-brand talent like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Michael J. Fox and others. This set the stage for the '90s and the work that BBDO would do - which brings us back to Patti, whose youthful fascination with the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog served as inspiration for Pepsi Points and the big-ticket giveaway item.

The luxury retailer featured a fantasy gift section with outrageous gifts - a tradition still carried on today, as their 2022 catalogue features a diamond tiara, a Barbie-inspired pink Maserati, polo lessons from two world champions and VIP access to an event in Aspen. And while these are all technically tangible, they're deemed more aspirational than realistic.

The Harrier Jet was a pop-culture phenomenon in 1996, brought to the forefront a few years prior when Arnold Schwarzenegger flew one in the 1994 action thriller, 'True Lies'. and for the sake of the big reveal in the latest BBDO spot for Pepsi, it was the perfect fantasy gift.

Of course the 7,000,000 points number begged the question if the offer was truly fantasy, or not, as the teenage demographic the spot was aimed at could clearly wrap their heads around that seven-digit number.

Patti shared his original storyboards for the spot, revealing that he and his team suggested the 700,000,000 for the Harrier Jet-which would've never never had Pepsico, Inc. and a 21-year old college student engaged in a lawsuit that would've made its way into law books and case studies for years to come.

The former BBDO creative director shared that he hasn't spoken about the campaign in about 25 years, but decided to speak out after reading the misguided ramblings of ill-informed Internet trolls trashing him and former art director Don Schneider for ultimately getting their client in hot water.

700,000,000 was reduced to 70,000,000 by BBDO, which Pepsi executives still felt was 'hard to read' and suggested taking out another zero, getting it to the controversial 7,000,000 - under the belief that a larger numerical value would play too small on the screen.

Patti explains that Brian Swette, former CMO for Pepsi, championed the 7,000,000 number as something he could read. The rest of Pepsi's executives fell in line, the spot was cleared by legal, was greenlit to run and the rest was history.

Anyone involved in agency work has dealt with this kind of pushback. When the client is as large as Pepsi, with a ton of people in the room all backing the decision-maker, the job becomes even more difficult for the creative team - forced to defend the work while picking and choosing their battles.

Patti goes on to explain that aside from the controversial point total, Pepsi overrode BBDO on the choice of lead actor for the spot, which changed the energy and tone of the campaign itself.

Originally wanting the main character to be in the mold of Patrick Renna's confident, schlubby underdog Ham Porterin The Sandlot-Pepsi opted for a mini-Maverick and aimed for 'Top Gun' cool with the popular jock lead. This ultimately undermined the pitch's intent even though it didn't ultimately hurt the commercial's success.

Still, these types of changes are indicative of the challenges that creatives and agencies can face when in a pitch meeting and room full of executives who might want to play it safe, or push things too far. That's when I really felt Michael Patti's pain following the unjust blame lumped on BBDO after the fact.

Once Leonard called Pepsi's bluff, the brand took the position that the 7,000,000 point total was obviously a gag and in-line with Pepsi's lighthearted, marketing sense of humour - all while their reaction to the fiasco proved otherwise.

Patti explained how Pepsi executives not only ran a different version of the ad in Canada-one with a disclaimer - but the original version of the ad was changed twice after Leonard sent in his $700,008.50 check to redeem the Harrier jet.

The second variety of the ad quietly changed 7,000,000 to 700,000,000 while a third and final spot featured the same nine-digit number and a 'just kidding' disclaimer. Everyone besides Pepsi and their legal team felt this was an admission of guilt, with the grand prize a legitimate offer until the new verbiage held it out of reach.

The worst part of the debacle - outside of John Leonard turning down the $1-million settlement offer - was the fact that a brilliant campaign has this story attached to it.

BBDO and Pepsi were both in the zone and every previous campaign had been gold, up until this setback. The fact that the brand was so strong and resonated with a younger audience made the timing ripe for this type of promotion.

Coca-Cola had already created a culture and market for antique gear and products - and now Pepsi had enough youthful brand loyalty that their tea could put their logo on virtually anything, turning customers into walking billboards on their behalf.

Pepsi positioned themselves as relevant throughout pop culture. Yet one misstep changed history and a quarter-century later there’s a docuseries on the campaign.

That is the tough part about agency work; trying to find the right balance of art and science - while allowing the creative process to breathe - and also making sure the brand’s message is heard, delivering optimal results.

The individual artist can create a piece of art by themselves, but when talking about commercial art - it’s all about collaboration and input. Trying to create with a lot of stakeholders not just in mind, but involved in the process, can - resulting in a Frankensteined creative process.

Healthy collaboration can absolutely turn good work great, but that can also come at the risk of watering the content down, It did just that in this case, which is why I’ll always have a ton of empathy for Patti and any creative directors fighting for their ideas, while having to live with concepts getting watered down in a boardroom.

As a creative, where do you stand up and challenge your client - versus when you accept their solid brand insight, tweaking your art to deliver the optimal message?

The answer to that question is why all of us in the advertising business do what we do, live for this work and are always chasing the next brilliant campaign.


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The Harkey Group, Mon, 23 Jan 2023 13:58:00 GMT