Pepsi vs. Leonard: All He Wanted Was a Plane

You might remember the famous Pepsi commercial from 1995. You know, the one with the teenage boy in the Pepsi shirt and black leather jacket, who flew a jet to his high school. It was pretty impressive.

Headlines / John Leonard / Pepsi Commercial / Pepsi Jet
Source: YouTube

In fact, it was so extraordinary that one viewer at home thought to himself, “I want that.” The commercial for the soda offered a points promotion: 75 points for a T-shirt, 175 points for sunglasses, and a leather jacket for 1,450 points. But that didn’t entice John Leonard. No, Leonard wanted the jet. He just needed to accumulate seven million points… just like the commercial said.

It Was Supposed to Be Ridiculous

Now, here’s the thing. Pepsi wasn’t serious about giving anyone a jet. The shirt, the glass, the jacket – all that was reasonable and feasible. But seven million Pepsi Points for a jet? That was the joke of the commercial. The ad creators took the idea of Pepsi Points and made it ridiculous.

The Harrier Fighter Jet from the commercial.
Source: YouTube

Boys and girls, let this be a lesson. Now, seven million definitely sounds like a big number, but the Pepsi team didn’t bother running through the numbers. A man named John Leonard did, though…

19,178 Pepsis a Day?

Washington man John Leonard set out on his campaign to land that jet. At first, he tried to drink his way to the total, which was a futile feat considering it meant he would need to buy and drink 19,178 cans of Pepsi every day for a year (if you’re wondering, that’s 920,000 grams of sugar… per day!).

Cans of Pepsi Cola.
Photo by Ja San Miguel/Unsplash

You can also equate it to 192 cans every day for a century. Either way, it was impossible. So, Leonard quickly gave up on this idea and found another way to get his jet. At the time, Leonard was a 21-year-old business student, who had the mind and motivation for what he was about to do next.

15 Points and a Big Check

As the Pepsi promotion stated, people could claim their prizes with an order form from the Pepsi Stuff catalog. They could trade a minimum of 15 original Pepsi Points and write a check to cover the cost of any additional points.

Pepsi stuff ad.
Source: Tumblr

Pepsi was also letting people buy additional points for 10 cents each. Leonard knew what he was doing, and he was all in. He scrounged up some friends and acquaintances and managed to convince them to give him the $700,000 he would need to acquire the 6,999,985 Pepsi Points that he was short of (on top of the 15 he already had).

I’d Like to Order One Harrier Jet, Please

Leonard then used an original form, included his 15 points, wrote a check for $700,008.50, included the $10 delivery charge and an order form for “1 Harrier Jet.” Now, at the time, an AV‑8B Harrier II Jet cost the US Marine Corps over $20 million.

A Marine aircraft handler directing a Harrier jet to its parking spot.
Photo by Mai/Getty Images

Rounding up $700,000 for a $20 million aircraft is a pretty darn good investment, isn’t it? Of course, Pepsi refused his claim right off the bat. They were nice about it, though, returning his check along with an apology for any confusion they caused over the promotion.

It Was a “Fanciful” Ad, Sir

In their letter, they told Leonard, “The Harrier jet in the Pepsi commercial is fanciful and is simply included to create a humorous and entertaining ad.” Leonard was ready for a fight, though. He had his lawyers ready with their legal battle boxing gloves on.

A fighter jet covered in Pepsi logos is flying.
Source: Facebook

His attorneys fired back at Pepsi with, “Your letter of May 7, 1996, is totally unacceptable. We have reviewed the video tape of the Pepsi Stuff commercial… and it clearly offers the new Harrier jet for 7,000,000 Pepsi Points. Our client followed your rules explicitly….”

Threatening the Pepsi Giant

The lawyers continued by telling Pepsi that this is a “formal demand that you honor your commitment and make immediate arrangements to transfer the new Harrier jet to our client.” They then threatened the massive soda company.

A letter from the counsel of John Leonard.
Source: Twitter

“If we do not receive transfer instructions within ten business days of the date of this letter you will leave us no choice but to file an appropriate action against Pepsi.” PepsiCo didn’t budge; they replied with, “I find it hard to believe that you are of the opinion that the Pepsi Stuff commercial (“Commercial”) really offers a new Harrier Jet.”

It Was “Clearly a Joke,” Sir

Pepsi reiterated that the commercial “was clearly a joke” and it was “meant to make the commercial more humorous and entertaining.” They even wrote that “no reasonable person would agree with your analysis of the commercial.”

A photo of John Leonard.
Source: YouTube

And so, Leonard went ahead and sued. The case went to court, and history was being made. Despite Leonard being from Washington and Pepsi being based in New York, the proceedings started in Florida. That is, until Florida courts said they had nothing to do with this case. Leonard was then ordered to pay PepsiCo $88,162 in lawyers’ fees.

In Other Words…

Over in New York, PepsiCo moved for summary judgment against Leonard. For those who don’t know (and why would you?), a summary judgment is governed by “Rule 56” of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which states…

An actor sits in the fighter jet drinking a can of Pepsi in the commercial.
Source: YouTube

“The court shall grant summary judgment if the [applicant] shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” In other words, Pepsi was saying this is ridiculous and let’s just get this over with.

The Verdict Is In

Pepsi was arguing that no contract ever existed between them and Leonard, therefore there was no genuine dispute between the parties. Leonard, however, had more than one trick up his sleeve. He argued that the advertisement was a promise of reward.

The Pepsi reward catalogue.
Source: Imgur

In the end, the court concluded that the commercial was not specific enough to allow such an offer to be accepted. The court also pointed to the fact that the ad directed customers to the Pepsi catalogue, which didn’t include a Harrier Jet, nor any sort of airplane.

Let’s Not Explain What’s Funny, Shall We?

Over the few years that the proceedings dragged on, there were countless discussions over whether the commercial was an obvious joke or if someone could actually take it seriously. Official notes from the judge included…

Headlines about the judge’s ruling.
Source: Imgur

“Plaintiff’s insistence that the commercial appears to be a serious offer requires the Court to explain why the commercial is funny. Explaining why a joke is funny is a daunting task.” Leonard never got his jet, but he did become something of a legend, as Leonard v. PepsiCo Inc. is now a part of legal history.

Pepsi Was on a Roll

As for Pepsi, they had to take steps to make sure this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again. Pepsi had to protect itself from future problems, which involved re‑releasing the ad with the Harrier. But they didn’t even remove the points.

The Pepsi plane commercial as seen on TV.
Source: YouTube

All they did was change the value to 700 million Pepsi Points. If only they had done that in the first place. The Pepsi Stuff campaign overall came to be a massive success, probably thanks to all the controversial press.

Leonard Had to Move On

The company chose not to respond to requests to comment on the impact of the campaign, but one Pepsi executive called it “by far the most successful promotion” the company had ever run. As for Leonard, after an unsuccessful appeal in 2000, he had no choice but to move on.

John Leonard is seen talking on the phone.
Source: YouTube

He moved to Alaska, became the chief mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park, was eventually promoted to the DC Bureau of the National Park Service. According to Hustle, he makes at least $120,000 a year.

The Simpsons Did It First

The Simpsons seem to have a way of predicting (or influencing) future events. The 1994 episode “Bart Gets an Elephant” features the same kind of thing. Bart forces a radio station to give him an elephant, which was the obvious joke prize, after he won a contest.

The Simpsons stare in awe at the elephant they won.
Source: 20th Television

This episode aired two years before the Leonard vs. Pepsi case. Did Leonard watch The Simpsons and get inspired? Funnily enough, another episode, “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming,” sees Milhouse pretending to fly a Harrier jet, which also aired before this happened.

Remember the McDonald’s Lawsuit?

The 1990s saw another major lawsuit between a consumer and a large company. Some of you might have even been thinking about the famous McDonald’s lawsuit while reading the Pepsi story. In 1992, an elderly woman named Stella Liebeck became the talk of the country when she spilled coffee on herself.

Stella Liebeck sits in court.
Source: YouTube

Well, it was because she sued McDonald’s for millions that it became such a sensational event. At first, people laughed at such a lawsuit, but in the end, Liebeck had the last laugh. (Although suffering from severe burns is no laughing matter).

The Media Had a Field Day

When Liebeck filed a lawsuit against the fast-food chain, the public was quick to judge her. People were saying things like, “of course coffee is hot” and unfairly accusing her just trying to make a buck off the company. But the media has its way of twisting stories.

A news reporter talks about the McDonalds lawsuit.
Source: YouTube

The truth is, Liebeck wasn’t money-hungry at all. She was a 79-year-old woman who got third-degree burns and felt that the ones responsible for handing out such dangerously hot drinks should face the repercussions. These days, it’s almost obvious to sue. But this was back when such lawsuits were rare.

Third-Degree Burns

On February 27, 1992, Liebeck was sitting in the passenger’s seat of her grandson Christopher Tiano’s car. “I wanted to take the top off to put cream and sugar in,” she said. “So, I put the cup between my knees to steady it [as I tried] to get the top off.

A steaming hot cup of coffee.
Source: Tumblr

“And after that, she started screaming,” Tiano recalled. The boiling hot water went through her clothes. Without even touching her skin directly, the spilled coffee resulted in third-degree burns over 16% of her body.

Shock, Skin Grafts, and Medical Bills

Her skin was completely burned off, exposing layers of muscle and fatty tissue. In the hospital, Liebeck went into shock and spent over a week there, undergoing various skin graft operations. She had injuries that would continue to affect her for the rest of her life, not to mention the surmounting medical bills.

Interview footage of Liebeck.
Source: YouTube

Unable to afford her medical bills, Liebeck’s grandson decided to send McDonald’s a letter asking for help. All they wanted was some help covering the medical treatment. The proposal was they pay up $20,000.

Time to Prosecute

McDonald’s refused. What they did offer was a measly $800, which would have barely covered the medical bills. Liebeck and her grandson were desperate and at a loss for what to do at that point. They figured their next move would be to prosecute.

Liebeck and her lawyers sit in court.
Source: YouTube

So, Liebeck contacted a lawyer. She tried to settle out of court multiple times, but the fast-food chain wouldn’t budge. So, she decided to go ahead and sue the company for $125,000 on the basis of her physical and mental pain, anguish, and loss of life’s enjoyment.

Six Agonizing Months

McDonald’s – and the media – made it look like the lawsuit gained so much attention because a “greedy old lady” was trying to get money from a big corporation. But the truth is that Liebeck spent an agonizing six months trying to get the company to pay her medical bills.

A photo of Stella Liebeck.
Source: Tumblr

At her age, a lawsuit was the last thing she wanted. Liebeck also wanted McDonald’s to change their policy, so this wouldn’t happen to someone else. But the chain made it seem like they were unfairly punished for serving hot coffee.

The Temperature Dilemma

Her overall argument was that the coffee was simply too hot. At the time, McDonald’s chains were required to brew their coffee at 195 to 205 degrees (F) but sell it at 180 to 190 degrees, which is much hotter than most people drink their coffee.

A ad for hot coffee.
Source: Imgur

Ken Wagner, one of Liebeck’s lawyers, put it in perspective, saying, “the coffee in question was brewed at temperatures that would approximate the temperature in your car’s radiator after you drive from your office to home.”

Hotter Than Most Restaurants

In reality, people just didn’t realize that McDonald’s coffee was being served at a burning temperature. People also didn’t understand that coffee at 180 and 190 degrees can definitely burn your skin. Most restaurants serve their coffee at 160 degrees.

The exterior of a McDonalds location.
Photo by Thabang/Unsplash

Served at that temperature, which reportedly takes 20 seconds to cause third-degree burns, a person has time to wipe the coffee off from wherever they spilled it. In court, the jury saw graphic images of Liebeck’s burns and listened to experts testify about the proper temperature of what coffee should be served at.

She Wasn’t So Lucky

Experts at the trial claimed that McDonald’s coffee was 30 to 40 degrees hotter than regular coffees served anywhere else. Liebeck’s surgeon, Dr. David Arrendono, told the jury that when liquid that hot touches the skin for more than a few seconds, it will result in severe burns.

Liebeck sits in a wheelchair beside her daughter.
Source: Facebook

“If you’re lucky, it will produce second-degree burns,” Arrendono testified. “If you’re not as lucky, you will get third-degree or full-thickness burns requiring skin grafting and surgery.” The jurors were then shown the horrific burns on Leibeck’s groin and her skin grafts.

What Happened to the Customer Is Always Right?

McDonald’s had reportedly justified serving their coffee boiling in The Wall Street Journal, claiming it tastes better that way. There were even coffee experts who testified in court, ensuring that “hot temperatures are necessary to fully extract the flavor during brewing.”

Headlines and newspaper clipping about the case.
Source: YouTube

Representatives of the chain said that Liebeck was to blame considering she was holding the cup in between her legs. They went further, saying she should have removed her clothes immediately after the spill. More so, they claimed her age had to do with the severity of her wounds as skin gets thinner and more susceptible to injury with age.

The McDonald’s Defense

McDonald’s played a pretty convincing defense – the public seemed to agree and the media ran with it. The main response: coffee is served hot, and the lady should have known that. While the public seemed to be on McDonald’s side and blamed Liebeck, the jury wasn’t buying it.

A woman shows the burns on her hands from McDonalds coffee.
Source: Reddit

What the public didn’t know – and what the media didn’t revealing to the public – were all the other burn cases from McDonald’s coffee. The jury heard about 700 other people, including young children, who were burned by the chain’s coffee before…

Ignoring the Hundreds of Burn Complaints

Not only were there hundreds of reported complaints, but the company also still didn’t change their temperature policy. In fact, they continued to serve their coffee between 180 and 190 degrees. What’s a few hundred complaints compared to billions of sales, right?

The coffee cup shown during the trial.
Source: YouTube

Given the billions of coffees McDonald’s sells annually, the number didn’t seem significant. The jury now understood that the chain was serving coffee at extreme temperatures, knowingly, and ignoring the fact that people were getting hurt. This is when the outlook started looking bad for the fast-food giant.

But the People Need Their Morning Coffees

Betty Farnham, one of jurors, told The Wall Street Journal, “There was a person behind every number, and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.” The way McDonald’s put it, they needed their coffee to be hot because people were buying it on the way to work.

Stella Liebeck speaks to the press.
Source: HBO

And because of that, they wanted it to stay hot by the time they got to work. Thus, the high heat was justified. The corporation made billions and weren’t planning on messing with that worked for them.

The Jury Is In

The jury ultimately made its decision based on the evidence they were shown and the reaction from McDonald’s, specifically the fact that it didn’t seem to care. It took a week of testimony and four hours of deliberation for the jury to side with Stella Liebeck.

A newspaper clipping about stella wining the trial.
Source: Twitter

They agreed that she was entitled to the $200,000 in compensatory damages. Besides, what’s a couple hundred thousand to a company that makes billions? Still, it was reduced to $160,000 for the reason that she spilled it on herself.

A Small Punitive Damage

But then there was the issue of punitive damages. Liebeck was finally granted $2.7 million. Why that number? Because it was the equivalent of what McDonald’s makes on coffee sales in two days. The jury suggested Liebeck be granted $2,735,000, a heck of a lot more than she ever requested.

A billboard talks about how Liebeck won.
Source: HBO

“The only way you get the attention of a big company [is] to make punitive damages against them,” juror Marjorie Getman stated. “And we thought this was a very small punitive damage.” However…

Down to $500,000

The judge lowered the amount to $650,000 and then further to $500,000. “I think the initial award certainly got everybody’s attention, not necessarily in a favorable way,” juror Betty Farnham said.

A photo of Stella Liebeck.
Source: HBO

McDonald’s needed to take responsibility. “We knew, before the lawsuit was filed, that the temperature of the water was 190 degrees or so, the franchise documents required that of the franchises,” Kenneth Wagner, Liebeck’s lawyer, said. Still, although she won against the giant, Liebeck was still scrutinized.

The Butt of the Jokes

Unfortunately, most people learned about the Liebeck vs. McDonald’s case from unfair media headlines and late-night talk shows. You might even remember the mockery on TV about it. “When you read ‘Woman’… ‘Coffee’… ‘Millions’… it sounds like a rip-off,” says John Llewellyn, a professor of communications.

Jay Leno makes a joke about Stella Liebeck.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

“Not the logical consequence of a thoughtful trial.” As usual, the media left out crucial details, making Liebeck look like all she wanted was money. Late night comedians had all the punch lines they needed. You probably saw the Seinfeld episode about it, too.

They Got the Facts Wrong

Not only did the newspapers and TV reports leave parts of the story out, but they also got the facts wrong. For example, it was reported that Liebeck was driving when she spilled the coffee. CBS News correspondent Andy Rooney said, “I’ve been thinking of quitting work here and suing big companies for a living instead.”

A newspaper photo of Stella Liebeck.
Source: YouTube

“Suing has become a popular American pastime, and I’d like to get in on some of that easy money,” he continued. Talk-show host Craig Ferguson said, “Every minute they waste on this frivolous lawsuit, they’re not able to waste on other frivolous lawsuits. ‘Oooh, my coffee was too hot.’ It’s coffee!”

Ignoring the Sad Truth

Media personalities were blabbing about the case and laughing over its ridiculousness. Jay Leno quipped, “Now [Stella Liebeck] claims she broke her nose on the sneeze guard on Sizzler’s salad bar bending over looking at chickpeas.”

Stella walks through her kitchen.
Source: YouTube

You can’t really blame them, though; their job is to entertain us. But what’s sad about it is that people weren’t speaking about the pain and suffering the old woman was in. At the end of the day, she did win the case… for a reason.

Adding Insult to Injury

Not only were talk-show hosts getting in on it; politicians also felt the need to state their opinions on a case they knew nothing about. “If a lady goes to a fast-food restaurant, puts coffee in her lap, burns her legs, and sues, and gets a big settlement, that in and of itself is enough to tell you why we need tort reform,” said former US Representative John Kasich of Ohio.

A photo of John Kasich.
Photo By Jonathan Elderfield/Getty Images

Of course, Liebeck – who asked for none of this – was upset by the aftermath. If dealing with the injury wasn’t enough, she had to absorb all the cruelty from the public. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Just Ask the People

People tended to side with McDonald’s, that is, the ones who knew only half the story. In the documentary Hot Coffee, the company held interviews with random people on the street to get a feel for the common opinion.

A McDonald’s sign lit up at night.
Photo by Carlos Macías/Unsplash

One woman said of Liebeck, “People are greedy and want money. They’ll do anything to get it.” Someone else said, “The woman purchased the coffee and spilled it on herself. It wasn’t like the McDonald’s employee took the coffee and threw it on her.”

Then Ask Her Family

Liebeck’s family was baffled. “I am just astounded at how many people are aware of this case and how many people have a distorted view of the case,” said her daughter Judy Allen. “I’ll say, ‘What if I told you she wasn’t driving?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, no, she was driving.’”

Judy Allen takes part in an interview.
Source: YouTube

Liebeck’s daughter-in-law, Barbara, added, “I’ve heard people say she was asking for $30 million or something equally ridiculous. Basically, Stella told McDonald’s, ‘I want you to cover what Medicare doesn’t cover.”

Put a Lid on It

Barbara added that her mother-in-law also wanted McDonald’s “to get a better lid on that coffee” because Liebeck didn’t want this to happen to another person. “That’s what she was asking for.”

A McDonald’s coffee cup with a lid.
Photo by Erik Mclean/Unsplash

The problem is, once people have a certain view on something, it’s rare that they change their minds. “Once everybody decides what is true about something and the media has been sort of an echo chamber for it, then how do you deal with the fact that they might be wrong?” the documentary asked.

Stella Speaks Up

“I wasn’t in it for the money,” Liebeck said in response to the backlash. “I was in it because I want them to bring the temperature down so that other people wouldn’t go through the same thing I did.”

Liebeck speaks to the press.
Source: HBO

Liebeck unfortunately never fully recovered to reach the strength and energy she had before the incident. She passed away at age 91. McDonald’s eventually started serving their coffee 10 degrees lower. Liebeck’s case was a first of its kind, but definitely not the last. People took notice…

A Domino Effect

People tried using Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Continental Airlines, and other major companies for their hot coffees. But those cases didn’t come close to the severity of Liebeck’s injuries. Liebeck’s lawyer, Kenneth Wagner’s goal was to make sure this never happens to anyone else.

“Caution Hot” is written on a coffee cup.
Source: Tumblr

There is a US products liability law that says clear instructions about warnings need to be in visible places to warn the user of the dangerous features. “All the cup said was ‘contents hot,’” said Wagner. Most states go by comparative negligence, meaning that even if you are at 1% fault, you will still be compensated.