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By Peter D'Urso

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?: A lesson in the importance of clarity and consistency in marketing messaging

Last Updated 6 Mar 2023

Efficient communication is a crucial part of creating influential marketing campaigns. A marketing message is the words you use as a brand to communicate with your audience and convince them into taking action and ultimately becoming paying customers. 

But successful marketing messaging isn’t just a case of sharing information about the products or services you are offering. At Assisted, our team of digital marketing experts understand that effective messaging also means helping to build a brand’s identity by communicating its broader mission, vision, and core values. 

Marketing messaging should communicate the value of a product or service. For instance, in what ways can it make customers’ lives easier? What specific problem/s or ‘pain points’ does it solve?  

Providing clarity and consistency in your marketing messaging across the board is key. After all, you don’t want to leave customers feeling confused or provide them with something completely different from what they were expecting and disappointed. 

In 2023, the words you use in the messaging in your digital marketing campaigns must be consistent across all forms of digital media you use, including social media platforms, web pages, blogs, e-mails, Google ads, e-newsletters, graphics, video clips, and more. 

Maintaining consistent messaging in modern-day digital marketing is a team effort that requires communication and strategising through fluid communication between internal and external marketing comms and sales teams. 

The effectiveness of your marketing messaging can be the difference between a customer deciding to go to your business or one of your competitors.

At Assisted, we understand that in order to grow as a business and continue to provide first-rate digital marketing services to customers, we need to ensure we’re constantly learning. 

With this in mind, we are keen to tell you all about the crucial marketing messaging lessons that can be learnt by watching and taking in the compelling four-part hit series that took Netflix by storm in November 2022 – ‘Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? 

So, fasten your seatbelts, there’s a fair bit of turbulence in this marketing tale set during the era of fierce advertising wars between bitter market rivals and global drink brands, Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?

The Netflix juggernaut series Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? teaches useful lessons that modern businesses and digital marketers today could learn about how to approach marketing messaging in campaigns.

First things first, let’s take a look into some of the key themes of this rollercoaster Netflix docu-series…

False advertising? Or was Pepsi having a laugh by offering a harrier jet in its commercial?

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? tells the compelling story behind the landmark corporate  lawsuit case Leonard vs Pepsico Inc 1999 (still taught in law schools across the globe today!). In this case, plaintiff John Leonard, a fresh-faced aspirational 21-year-old business college student, called Pepsi out for ‘false advertising’ by suing when they refused to give him a harrier jet they offered as a reward for whoever could get 7,000,000 Pepsi points as part of a collect and redeem promotion in the drink brand’s outlandish 1996 commercial.

Throughout the case, staff in the creative marketing and advertising departments of Pepsi and BBDO (a prestigious global ad agency that Pepsi regularly used for campaigns) claimed no ‘reasonable-minded’ individual would have ever taken the offer of the harrier jet on the ad seriously.

However, John Leonard persistently argued that he saw the offer of the harrier jet by Pepsi as genuine and took the commercial with utter sincerity, and he also claimed as would others from the ‘Pepsi generation’ (Pepsi’s main target audience for its marketing and advertising campaigns in the 90s!). 

John Leonard was a savvy young man who found a crafty loophole!

When John Leonard saw the commercial, he was hell-bent on collecting those 7,000,000 Pepsi points and getting his hands on the impressive jet. He chose to use a contact he had who could help him in Todd Hoffman, a successful investor, who could maybe help him find a way to get all the required Pepsi points so he could finally become the proud owner of the sacred jet.

After Mr Leonard scratched his head for a good while trying to think of a way he and his buddy Mr Hoffman could realistically get the 7,000,000 Pepsi points, he then had a eureka moment! While looking through the pages of a Pepsi catalogue, he noticed that next to all the Pepsi-related paraphernalia and merchandise you could get your hands on for Pepsi points was a small segment of print at the bottom of the page explaining how you could buy Pepsi points at 10 cents each.

After doing a bit of simple maths, Mr Leonard and Hoffman figured out that they could buy the number of Pepsi points they needed to get their hands on the 30 million dollar military harrier jet as promised (in their eyes) by Pepsi in the ad for as little as $700,000 (10 cents x 7,000,000=$700,000). This loophole was a fantastic spot by John Leonard, and it made the pair only more determined to obtain the harrier jet they had seen in the commercial. 

Critics and Pepsi saw John Leonard as an opportunist after a quick buck

Some believed John Leonard’s smart brain meant he had done all the figures and realised that this loophole in the Pepsi advert was a good opportunity to get his hands on a nice big wad of cash since the jet was worth a lot of money! This is precisely the motivation many Pepsi execs believed was behind Mr Leonard’s efforts to take legal action against the company for ‘false advertisement’ for the harrier jet showcased in the commercial for anyone able to get 7,000,000 points.

In the docu-series in 2022 all those years later, Mr Leonard remains steadfast in saying that money was never one of his motives!

The lawsuit caused Pepsi a real headache

Mr Leonard ended up pursuing the case pretty hard, he even refused a generous payout settlement from Pepsi of $750,000 rising to one million dollars! As a result, it finally went to the District Court for the Southern District of New York in August 1999, three years after the Pepsi harrier jet commercial itself had aired.

The court case was a PR disaster for Pepsi. A fair chunk of the public with Mr Leonard that Pepsi had taken its eye off the ball by offering a harrier jet in the commercial without providing any sort of disclaimers. This lawsuit was an unwanted distraction for Pepsi, an organisation that was intent and focused on outcompeting and outselling its industry arch nemesis, Coca-Cola. 

The 1996 harrier jet commercial was at the height of the Pepsi-Coca-Cola advertising rivalry

But what led Pepsi, a major corporation, to make such a blunder and get entangled in a messy legal battle over a collect and redeem promotion spawned from the bright minds of their creative team and the global ad agency BBDO? Well, context is everything here. Pepsi at the time was doing all it could on a marketing and advertising front to outcompete its main competitor, Coca-Cola, and create commercials that grasped the attention of its target audience ‘the Pepsi Generation’ (young adolescents).

Pepsi’s flagship commercials featured icons and household names of the era such as Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Cindy Crawford. However, by promising a harrier jet to anyone able to reach 7,000,000 Pepsi points, they overdid their turbocharged campaigns and ran into trouble with John Leonard, which they really could have done without.

Pepsi won the case, after a fair bit of huffing and puffing 

It’s no secret that large corporations in the 90s, such as Pepsi, had the best lawyers, and lots of power. Fortunately for Pepsi, Kimba Wood, the judge who presided over the case, was widely seen by those in the legal profession and big corporations as a judge that looked favourably on large corporate businesses. Therefore, Pepsi was always on the front foot when it came to the court case vs Leonard in 1999 in New York. 

But the whole affair was a real hassle for Pepsi. The fact that a regular viewer of their advertisements, a young Mr Leonard, was able to take them to court and sue based on an offer made in one of their commercials broadcast to millions taught them a lesson in the damage that misleading or ambiguous marketing messaging could do to their brand. 

The judge’s final decision

Judge Kimba Wood’s final decision was to reject Leonard’s claims and deny recovery of the jet on the grounds of

  • Finding that the advertisement featuring the harrier jet did not constitute an offer under the Restatement Second of Contracts
  • No reasonable person would have believed that the company genuinely intended to offer viewers a jet worth roughly $30 million for $700,000 (it was a jokey advert)
  • The Statute of Frauds requires a written agreement between the parties, such as a binding contract, and this was not fulfilled 

How is this Netflix hit relevant to what we do at Assisted?

So, what has this Netflix hit docu-series got to do with digital marketing and what we do here at Assisted you may ask? Well, forward-thinking digital marketers must learn from the successes and failures of past campaigns, and there are pertinent lessons on the importance of clarity and consistency in marketing messaging that we can learn by watching Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? 

Continue reading to learn more about the connections between this Netflix hit docu-series based on a 1996 fizzy drink commercial and the importance of messaging being clear and consistent in marketing campaigns in today’s digital age.

Crucial takeaways from Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?

What are the pivotal lessons that can be learnt from this Netflix show depicting a world-famous lawsuit?

Learning from failed marketing campaigns can be key to developing effective impactful marketing campaigns in the future. Here we delve deeper into the lessons that can be learnt from the whole Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? fiasco…

Marketing methods have changed greatly over time, but some principles remain the same

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? demonstrates that despite advances in digital technology, the old tried and tested principles behind clear and consistent marketing messaging remain the same. 

Messaging in marketing campaigns today, just like in decades gone by, must provide customers with 

  • Honest descriptions of products or services (customers loathe being led down the wrong path or lied to in any way in marketing campaigns, always have done, always will do)
  • Credible offers and promotions 
  • Disclaimers where necessary to provide nuance and avoid overpromising or failing to deliver on an offer
  • Tailored wording and visuals that are easy to understand for the target audience 
  • Solutions to everyday problems or difficulties

So, a useful lesson we can take from the four-part series Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? is that some core principles around the best practices for marketing messaging and engaging with your audience in campaigns ring just as true now as they did in times gone by. 

Make sure it does what it says on the tin 

The basic marketing messaging mistake that Pepsi made (and ultimately got away with) was not to include any sort of disclaimer on the harrier fighter jet commercial. Intriguingly, Pepsi did include a disclaimer on the Canadian commercial, however, they forgot to do so on the US version. Hence, this slip-up left them wide open to customers from their target audience – the Pepsi generation, like Mr Leonard, saying they had a fair claim to a harrier jet after watching the eye-catching commercial. 

One of the morals of the story here is to make sure your marketing messaging ‘does what it says on the tin’ in terms of the products, services, discounts, and special promotions that are offered to customers in campaigns. 

The creative directors at Pepsi and BBDO, the ad agency Pepsi hired, perhaps got a bit carried away when focussing on the need to provide ‘out there’ extravagant offers in commercials that would grab customers’ eyes towards their products, and away from Coca-Cola’s!

Likewise, in digital campaigns, you must make sure you can feasibly deliver on the promises you make in your marketing messages across digital media channels. Misleading customers and giving them false hope inevitably leaves a sour taste.

At Assisted, we deliver on the promises we make to our customers! We run successful campaigns with the help of our sharp-minded orchestra of digital marketing specialists in PPC, Web Design, Social Media, Content, and SEO at hand!

Customers will hold you accountable for the details of your T & Cs

Another important lesson from the Netflix series is that customers will hold you accountable for your disclaimers (or lack of them) and terms and conditions, much like Mr Leonard attempted to when taking Pepsi to court for the offer on its commercial.

In the digital age, businesses are more open to public scrutiny from customers than ever due to the power of social media and online reviews.

So, the lesson we can take from the series is that businesses and marketers must ensure that all the relevant terms and conditions of products, services, promotions, and competitions are clearly outlined in marketing campaigns.

Being careful about how you word T & Cs in messaging will help to keep customers in the loop and provide them with the full picture. That way, you should be able to avoid any complaints that you have kept customers in the dark in any way about essential T&Cs.

Listen to your audience, or feel their wrath!

The lawsuit in Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? was a David vs Goliath situation in that it was a multinational global brand Pepsi vs John Leonard, a young college student. This series and how it unravels helps to teach businesses about the importance of listening to their customers and target audience. 

When it came to the big courtroom in New York, Pepsi now had to listen to Mr Leonard’s case about the false offer of a Harrier jet in the commercial he believed they were guilty of, and take it seriously.

No matter how big a business gets and how much it spends on its marketing campaigns, ignoring your audience is never a positive route to go down. In this case, you could say Goliath (Pepsi) ignored David (Mr Leonard) at their peril since the whole thing was a PR nightmare for Pepsi as a brand.

So, never underestimating the power of customers dissatisfied with inconsistent or ambiguous brand messaging and empty promises made in promotional campaign competitions is something to take from this Netflix series.

A track record of poor marketing campaigns will damage your brand’s reputation

Back then and in the world of today, a track record of poor campaigns with misjudged messaging damages your reputation, history cannot keep repeating itself. Pepsi did actually have form for promotional disasters prior to the harrier jet commercial debacle. 

In an attempt to try and chip away at Coca-Cola’s 75% domination of the market in the Philippines, in 1992 Pepsi decided to release a promotion involving numbers found inside bottle caps, with the winner of the grand prize getting one million pesos (the equivalent of over 600 times the average monthly salary at the time in the Phillippines). Accidentally, Pepsi printed around 800,000 bottles with the number 349, but all without the required security code. This typo error in Pepsi’s promotion infuriated people and subsequently led to riots and resulted in five deaths in total.   

Mr Leonard’s lawyer realised that this promotion gone wrong in the Philippines was something that could also be used to hurt Pepsi in the harrier jet commercial case. In reality, this effort by Leonard’s lawyer was in vain. However, citing the ‘349 scandal’ in the Philippines could have gravely damaged Pepsi’s arguments in its case vs Leonard in 1999.  

Are you now interested in watching Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? for yourself? Check out the trailer and head on over to Netflix :).

Here at Assisted, we don’t run television commercials for fizzy drinks, and we can’t offer you harrier jets (to my knowledge!). But we do have a highly skilled team with fine-tuned expertise in running digital marketing campaigns that are able to deliver growth and ROI for clients across a broad range of sectors. 

Not content with your brand’s online visibility? We are wonderfully well-equipped here at Assisted to skyrocket your visibility and provide you with valuable digital marketing results! Get in touch today by emailing us at [email protected] or calling us on 01788 288020.