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When Fighting Pepsi for a $30 Million Jet, Don’t Appear on ‘Judge Judy’

And other lessons from the very strange story behind Netflix docuseries “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?”

Michael Davis as John Leonard in "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?"

Michael Davis as John Leonard in “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?”

Courtesy of Netflix

Before the streaming wars, there were the cola wars. In an effort to antagonize perennial sugar-water leader Coca-Cola, PepsiCo went to battle in 1996 with Pepsi Stuff, a loyalty program that provided prizes for Pepsi Points — including, according to a TV commercial, a Harrier Jet. However, Pepsi did not actually bring a Harrier to its dogfight.

The soda company not only failed to put a disclaimer on its now-iconic advertisement, it also didn’t realize that someone could actually collect the required 7 million points and try to redeem them for a plane valued at more than $30 million.

Netflix documentary series “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” chronicles the fallout — nearly devastating for Goliath Pepsi and nearly a major windfall for a pair of Davids, John Leonard and Todd Hoffman — from an unbelievable advertising oversight.

Leonard, then a 20-year-old climbing guide, saw the commercial’s inclusion of the jet as a legitimate offer. Hoffman, a climber and the money man, bought in to Leonard’s business plan. “Some of them just never did the math,” Leonard told IndieWire. “It was obtainable.”

The Pepsi Points (a single can had one, a 12-pack had four) became very obtainable when Leonard discovered a second loophole in the promotion. But in the end, the jet proved unattainable for Leonard and Hoffman.

Viewers of “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” will learn that the two turned down a settlement offer between $750,000 and $1 million, depending which side of the dispute is asked. Either way, as Leonard told us, he nearly blew the whole damn opportunity for the promise of a $250 “Judge Judy” payout. Twenty-year-olds, amirite?

With his name and the Pepsi case in the news, Leonard was invited to appear on the “People’s Court” replacement, an unknown project that could only dream of its eventual success in syndication. “It was, like, lowbrow,” Leonard emphasized in our Google video chat, calling the early “Judge Judy” set’s green room “more like an outhouse.”

Nevertheless, Leonard made his case for the TV cameras, apparently unaware that if the show’s then-unknown judge, Judith Sheindlin, ruled against him, he also would have broadcast the weaknesses of his case. But $250 is $250, and Leonard said he’d already mentally spent it a new suitcase.

As it turned out, she ruled in favor of John in what Leonard called a “quasi-summary judgment hearing.” Unfortunately, the courtroom-show’s pilot had such a tiny budget that Leonard was told his travel expenses negated the nominal appearance fee, and he walked away with nothing but a free (and brief) trip to California.

In the end, none of it mattered: A real judge in a real courtroom later found in favor of Pepsi.

John Leonard and Todd Hoffman in "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?"

You won’t see this moment of TV history in the Netflix special. “Judge Judy” rights-holders wanted an “astronomical amount,” in Leonard’s words, to license his episode for use in “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” Due to the documentary nature of the Netflix series, Leonard and Hoffman once again went unpaid beyond, essentially, a travel stipend.

Leonard and Hoffman do still own the rights to their story — and they’ve got plans. For Todd, it’s a movie; for John, it’s a kids’ book. Leonard and Hoffman’s case is still very popular in the legal and advertising communities, and many believe they were hosed by a corporate-friendly judge. Also, there’s now the Netflix bump.

“We really wanted to get the story out there because we think, looking back, that it really has some meaning,” Hoffman told us. “Aside from being a fun ride and funny and clever and all the things people want to think about it, it’s a great story. Nobody gets killed, it’s not about a mass-murderer — it’s about a couple of friends that took Pepsi up on their offer.”

John Leonard and Todd Hoffman in "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?"

John Leonard and Todd Hoffman in “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?”

Courtesy of Netflix

It is a great story, and a highly enjoyable docuseries. What’s more, the retelling of the tale for Netflix reunited Leonard and Hoffman, who had drifted apart over the years. For them, that’s worth quite a lot.

“I don’t think we look back with any sort of regret,” Leonard said. “We didn’t get the jet, but for both of us — and frankly I wouldn’t have said this two years ago before we started this project — but now we look back and I have very fond, positive memories that we had a lot of fun with it.

“I hid from this story for a long time; it felt like kind of a failure on many levels,” he continued. “[But] it taught me a whole bunch about people and business and all that sort of stuff. It taught me how to laugh at myself, and I think it’s taught both Todd and I about friendship.”

“Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” is streaming now on Netflix.

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