Let’s face it. We live in an era of rules and regulations. Where a joke taken literally can quickly land you in court. Sometimes it feels like a good idea can only be saved by fine print and disclaimers. But if we’re so busy being clever that we end up selling a lie, shouldn’t we be held accountable?

1996 pepsi stuff campaign

1996 pepsi stuff campaign

Do you remember the 1996 Pepsi Stuff campaign? I remember it because it was the first huge marketing splash that I was old enough to really get caught up in. Everyone was collecting those darn points.

And who can forget the commercial selling a Harrier Jet for 7,000,000 points! It was only, like, the coolest thing ever. What you may not recall is that a 21-year-old college student, John Leonard, actually “won” the jet. Well, sort of. He read in the contest rules that points could be purchased for $.10 a piece. So, he did what any amazing business student would do. He found investors to give him $700,000 — I assume promising them a return of 34 times that investment, as Harrier Jets are valued around $24 Million. He sent Pepsi a few labels and the money and waited.

The Jet never came. But a lawsuit did. Pepsi tried to get his claim ruled frivolous. When Leonard counter sued, it was eventually thrown out by the judge citing, “no objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier Jet.”

There’s a couple things really wrong with this ruling:

  1. The commercial is aimed at kids, but that doesn’t mean you can just flat out lie about what’s offered. If anything, younger people are more susceptible to believe far fetched ideas.
  2. There is no disclaimer anywhere on the commercial stating that it’s not real. Shouldn’t that mean that Pepsi should be held responsible for what they were selling? At the very least they should have paid reparations and covered Leonard’s lawyer fees.
  3. If Pepsi legal had done their due diligence and checked the cost of points, they would have realized they were making an offer that was too good to be true – why wouldn’t someone have gone for it?

I find it hard to believe the court would have ruled the same nowadays. The optimist in me hopes brands are held more accountable for what they offer their customers.

In any case, it was a sad day for Pepsi. Had they spent just a little time thinking about how to address Leonard’s entry in a positive way, they could have turned it into a PR triumph — giving Leonard a toy Harrier and thanking him for getting the joke, or even a ride in a real jet. Instead they punished their audience for rising to the challenge.