Entertainment: Pepsi once offered a fighter jet as a joke prize in a promotion. A student tried to claim it anyway.

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Pepsi launched a campaign in the 1990s with a joke made in a TV commercial that lead to a lawsuit. Jakub Porzycki/Getty Images © Provided by Business Insider Pepsi launched a campaign in the 1990s with a joke made in a TV commercial that lead to a lawsuit. Jakub Porzycki/Getty Images
  • Pepsi launched a "points" promotion in 1996 that included a "joke" prize of a $23M fighter jet.
  • College student John Leonard took this challenge seriously, and launched a plan to nab the prize.
  • A new Netflix documentary "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?" recounts Leonard's attempt to claim the jet.

John Leonard's life took an unusual turn in 1996, when a Pepsi campaign set him on a mission to try to secure the ultimate competition prize: a fighter jet.

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A new Netflix documentary, "Pepsi, Where's My Jet?", recounts Leonard's audacious attempt to hold the drinks giant to its word, pushing the limits of a joke to a millionaire-backed scheme and a courtroom battle.

Pepsi launched a rewards scheme called Pepsi Points, with customers able to redeem items using points accrued from buying its drinks.

The company released a TV commercial for the promotion that ended with the claim that 7 million points would allow a Harrier fighter jet worth about $23 million to be redeemed.

The only problem, Leonard argued, was that Pepsi failed to put a disclaimer in its ad to tell viewers it was only joking. The lack of any fine print led him to try to nab what arguably would have been one of the world's best bargains.

Leonard, a 20-year-old college student at the time, realised it would be prohibitive to buy and store the required number of Pepsi cans or bottles to redeem the jet. However, he saw a loophole: buy Pepsi Points for 10 cents each, meaning the seven million points needed for the jet would cost $700,000.

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The student convinced millionaire Todd Hoffman, who had befriended Leonard on a mountaineering trip, to bankroll his plan.

"We looked at the videotape of the commercial, and I just kept looking at it over and over and over and going: 'That is absolutely a reckless ad put out there by a major corporation that knows better,'" Hoffman told The Guardian this week.

The saga is similar to a 1994 episode of "The Simpsons," in which Bart Simpson chooses a "joke" prize of an elephant over $10,000, much to the dismay of radio hosts giving away the reward. The episode was broadcast a couple of years before Leonard embarked on his scheme.

While Bart did receive his elephant, Pepsi refused to budge on what it argued was obviously a joke. The group's refusal to honor the advertisement brought the matter to court.

Leonard was unsuccessful though, with District Judge Kimba Wood saying that a claim in an advertisement didn't count as a unilateral offer.

"The tongue-in-cheek attitude of the commercial would not cause a reasonable person to conclude that a soft drink company would be giving away fighter planes as part of a promotion," Wood said as part of his verdict siding with Pepsi.

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While Pepsi escaped having to buy a Harrier, it resulted in a PR disaster at the worst possible time.

Missed opportunity

In the 1990s Pepsi was embroiled in a battle with Coca-Cola that would soon see Diet Coke overtake its cola as the second best-selling soda in the US, behind Coke.

The company had battled a series of scandals, from gaffes over celebrity partnerships to incidents involving syringes being found in Pepsi cans. Tangentially, Coca-Cola's abandonment of "New Coke" in the 80s helped the brand recover its own flagging reputation.

Hoffman told The Guardian he thought the botched stunt contributed to that downfall.

"Pepsi blew a great opportunity to lasso this kid and say: 'Look, we'll take you around the country in the Harrier jet for the next year, we'll pay you a million bucks.'

"Instead of hiring lawyers and suing us, they could have actually done the right thing and said: 'This kid put the deal together. He rang the bell and he gets the prize,' you know?"

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