Pepsi Points and the Jet: A Column From 1996

John Scalzi

They’re making a Netflix documentary series about the time in the 90s a kid tried to get a Harrier jet from Pepsi, based on a commercial the soft drink maker put out on TV. As I watched the trailer, I had a vague memory of writing a column about it at the time. I checked the archives, and, indeed, I had! Here it is, from all the way back in 1996. That’s (counts on fingers) oooooof, a long time ago.

Anyway, if you were not aware of my existence in the 90s and wonder what sort of stuff I was writing a quarter century ago, here you go. I think you can see how I went from how I was writing then to how I am writing now pretty clearly. I will say that if I were writing the same piece today I’d do that last graf differently. The 90s were a bit more sexist than today, and at the time I was happy to be dude-ish for a punchline. We live and learn.


How much Pepsi would it take to get a Harrier Jet?

The question has relevance because someone, specifically John Leonard of Lynwood, Washington, is suing PepsiCo, the makers of Pepsi. PepsiCo won’t give him the Harrier Jet that he says they said they would give him if he collected 7 million “Pepsi Points.” Pepsi Points are credits that PepsiCo gives you for consuming their brown beverage — drink enough Pepsi, and you can get various trinkets from a catalogue they provide. They’re like Green Stamps, only carbonated.

One of the ads for Pepsi Points featured a 13-year-old kid who racked up 7 million Pepsi Points and redeemed them for a vertically-launching Harrier Jet. The kid was using the Harrier Jet to commute to school, which admittedly would have had some advantages (no traffic except for the occasional, very surprised helicopter; also, coming to school equipped with Sidewinder missiles tends cut down on the amount of homework teachers are willing to assign you).

Most folks who saw this commercial showed a rather un-American lack of initiative in pursuing the 7 million Pepsi Points, but Leonard, full of the moxie that made this country great, saw a golden opportunity. After all, Harrier Jets generally go for $70 million. Oh, sure, occasionally you can get a million or two chopped off the asking price, but you usually have to be an ally of the US, and have fought a war or two on the same side as us (or be France). The average Joe, on the other hand, presuming he could even get his hands on a Harrier, would have to pay the full dealer markup — which of course doesn’t include tax, title and delivery, or things like air conditioning or a cassette stereo.

But PepsiCo, who had apparently somehow managed to acquire a Harrier Jet (presumably the Cola Wars have taken on a new and more violent aspect), were getting rid of it for a mere 7 million Pepsi Points, which aside from drinking Pepsi can be bought at 10 cents a point. That’s just $700,000, still a lot of money — it takes Bill Gates almost 12 hours to make that much off of interest! — but a fair markdown from the Harrier’s listed sticker price. Leonard got some investors, got the $700,000, and approached Pepsi for the jet. Though we can’t know exactly what the exchange was between Leonard and PepsiCo, we can assume it went something like this:

Leonard: I’m here for my jet.

PepsiCo Representative: You’re nuts.

Leonard threatened to sue to get the jet. PepsiCo responded by filing for a Declaratory Judgement — basically asking a judge to tell Leonard to take his Pepsi Points and buy a clue instead. Leonard followed through with his suit, and that’s where it stands at the moment: Leonard on one side, PepsiCo on the other, and a Harrier Jet in between.

Ignoring the reality-based issues of this suit — such as the fact that PepsiCo never had a Harrier Jet, that its commercial was clearly meant for humorous effect, and that even if Leonard some how miraculously won the suit, the Pentagon would never give him a Harrier anyway — let’s deal with the theoretical aspects. I say that PepsiCo should give Leonard the Harrier Jet — if Leonard earns his Pepsi Points the way they were meant to be earned: by drinking his way through them. Just him, without help from anyone else.

Which brings us back to our original question: how much Pepsi would it take to get a Harrier Jet? According to an Associated Press report, it’d take 16,800,000 12-ounce cans — except in August, when points are doubled. So he’d only have to drink 8,400,000 cans, presuming he could drink them all in August.

It takes about 12 seconds to drain a can of Pepsi; the limiting factor is the mouth of the can. You could speed up the process of getting the Pepsi out of the can with something like rubber tubing (a “Pepsi Bong”), but then, there’s the set-up time getting the rubber tubing in the can and into Leonard’s gullet simultaneously. 12 seconds per can is as good as it’s going to get. That’s five cans a minute, 300 cans an hour, 7200 cans a day.

Assuming that Leonard, cathetered and with a nutrient IV drip to fulfill his basic life functions, did nothing else besides drink Pepsi 24 hours a day, it would take him one thousand, one hundred sixty six days and 16 hours to drink all 8.4 million cans. By which time, obviously, August would be over. He’d have to drink another 8.4 million cans to make up the difference. All told, Leonard would have to spend about 6 years and three months of his life doing nothing but drinking Pepsi to get enough Pepsi Points for the Harrier Jet.

That’s fair. If he can do that, I say he’s earned the jet. He’ll need a couple of other things as well (for example, a new digestive tract), but if you’ve drunk that much Pepsi, you can probably tuck a couple more cans of the stuff away to cover the medical expenses. I think it’s a solution that both PepsiCo and Leonard can agree on. I called PepsiCo, to see if they might be amenable to idea: Pepsi spokesman Brad Shaw declared, “I can hardly think of a better way to spend six years than drinking Pepsi non-stop.” So, John Leonard, get cracking!

Now, there’s another Pepsi Points ad in which these guys are drinking Pepsi, and every woman around them has turned into Cindy Crawford. I recently quaffed a Pepsi, but all the women near me persisted in being themselves. I think I may have a case.

— JS

20 Comments on “Pepsi Points and the Jet: A Column From 1996”

  1. To get ahead of the well-intentioned folks who might say “that last graf isn’t so bad actually,” I’m not saying it’s the most sexist thing to come out of the 90s, but, yeah, it is still sexist, specifically, the commercial it talks about valorized attractiveness as the primary desirable trait of women, and in my paragraph I went along with it. I was 27 when I wrote the piece so I knew better than that, but I was also perfectly happy to go for the easy punchline because why wouldn’t I, there was no penalty for doing so at the time.

    Nowadays I would write the last graf differently, not just because it might make people roll their eyes at the casual sexism (this is the whole “you can’t make jokes anymore”), but because the commercial premise doesn’t work for me anymore (women are actual humans, not just male gaze recipients, and also, one Cindy Crawford is sufficient for the world), so I wouldn’t have written about it, or at least, not in the same blithe fashion.

    So, sure, it might not be the worst graf ever. Also, it’s still casually sexist and I wouldn’t write it now. I thought about snipping it out from this presentation, but a) I’m okay showing that I had some personal growth as a writer, b) the original is out there and anyone could find it with the original last graf. So, here it is.

  2. If I was going to re-write the last graf it would probably be more on the physical act of drinking soda for six years straight, i.e., sticking with the actual topic at hand.

    As for the resolution of the legal case, I’m too lazy to look it up now, but I’m pretty sure the dude did not get the jet. I’m 100% certain the case info is available online. Or, you could watch the documentary when it comes out!

  3. This reminds me of a story I read about the game show Let’s Make a Deal, where the show’s producers liked to include a ridiculous or funny item from time to time. The story (which may be true!) was that they used a rented, working, oil rig as the gag item, realizing only later that had the contestant selected that item they would have been in a financial pickle.

    I worry that the entire “reasonable person” defense to such claims against such suits will soon vanish, as plaintiff’s attorneys rise to state that in America companies can no longer assume their ads are reaching “reasonable persons.”

  4. I am sure others have pointed this out, but this passage struck me as poorly researched.

    “Most folks who saw this commercial showed a rather un-American lack of initiative in pursuing the 7 million Pepsi Points, but Leonard, full of the moxie that made this country great, saw a golden opportunity. ”

    Were he in fact full of Moxie, he would not have earned any Pepsi points. Moxie was an independent soda company headquartered in New Hampshire. As of 2018 it is owned by the Coca Cola company.

  5. I think you’re funnier these days:

    “I say that PepsiCo should give Leonard the Harrier Jet — if Leonard earns his Pepsi Points the way they were meant to be earned: by drinking his way through them. Just him, without help from anyone else.”

    I know you were trying to be funny, but that was never how they were “meant” to be earned. It was right in the rules that he could buy them — and if Pepsi had cashed his cheque, the court case might have resolved differently. Even if the purchase of points had not been an option, nobody would ever have been required to drink the stuff — just buy it. Any “reasonable person” would have believed that, because that’s the way all these contests run. Surely the contest rules also said “Void where prohibited”, which is usually “QC, Canada” but in this case… everywhere?

    The wikipedia article said the cost of a Harrier was only about $23m. It would have to have been a used one (because those are only manufactured for military orders), so maybe they could even have got a British first-gen (which would have been about 30 years old) for $700,000

  6. Back when there were Burma-Shave signs by the side of the road, there was a sequence that read “Free, free / A trip to Mars / For ten thousand / Empty jars.” (Exact number from memory.)

    Somebody collected the N empty jars and requested the trip. To which corporate replied, “If a trip to Mars you’d earn / Remember, friend, there’s no return.”

    But he still wanted to go, so reportedly they sent him to a town called Mars in Germany. (I say reportedly because I can’t find it on a quick search.)

  7. This episode shows up when I teach contracts, about whether an offer is reasonable and intended to elicit acceptance. It makes for a great instance where sometimes what seems like an offer just isn’t.

  8. I think the most dated part of the column isn’t the final paragraph, but the reference to a cassette stereo.

  9. After reading your column and watching the trailer, ha, I’m hooked. I will watch that. Thanks for the peek into some of your past writing.

  10. One of my Academy buddies ended up as a shit-hot fighter jock and accepted the offer to be an exchange pilot with the Royal Air Force (each country sends a few of their best on exchange tours to fly with the other for a few years. There’s currently a RAF bubba flying F-22s in one of our squadrons).

    My friend ended up flying Harriers with the Brits. He said he always believed that was the only plane he ever flew that was deliberately trying to kill him every time he left the ground. A finicky beast to fly.

    The version us Yanks flew, the USMC’s AV-8, had an astronomical accident rate compared to all other aircraft. The Marines lost over a third of their fleet in accidents despite putting only their best aviators in the cockpit of the jet.

  11. If you add enough Rum to your Pepsi, I bet all the women will start looking like Cindy Crawford or whoever is your favorite crush these days. So you aren’t doing it right.

    Of course, by that time you wouldn’t legally be able to drive a car, let alone fly a Harrier Jet.

  12. Reading this, I thought that surely it had to be the inspiration for The Simpsons episode where Bart wins an elephant from a local radio station, so I went and looked it up, and no! “Bart Gets an Elephant” aired in 1994. Leonard really should have known that he couldn’t care for a Harrier jet, and that he would end up having to send it somewhere where his unsocialized Harrier could bully all the other Harriers at the Harrier Preserve.

  13. I actually remember doing the math on that myself, although I’d never heard of you then.

    There was nothing wrong with your last graph. Just like at the time Married With Children was the funniest show at the time.

    Times change. I don’t find modern comedies funny. But YouTube showed me a 25 y/o ep of MWC and it was hilarious. As opposed to Modern Family, which I never got into and never more than smiled for.

  14. ROFL ==> PepsiCo, who had apparently somehow managed to acquire a Harrier Jet (presumably the Cola Wars have taken on a new and more violent aspect), were getting rid of it for a mere 7 million Pepsi Points

    what’s really rib tickling is around that same timeframe of mid-1990s there were a number of SF authors (including Robert Aspirin) writing tales about various versions of ‘corporate takeover wars’… actual battles with masses of mercenaries seeking to implement the ultimate in hostile takeover bids…

    I wish I could remember if anyone wrote something ‘cola war’ specific… if not then I guess there’s no reason I should pass up on the “Atlanta 1999: Cold War Turned Cola”… some mash up of Soviets egging on racist Americans + separatists eager for Civil War 2.0 + hostile takeover of southern Coke bottling plants by Pepsi + CNN/MSNBC/FoxNews all in dire need of ratings

    oh heck it could be backstory & basis of MMOLRPG akin to WoW only with carbonated sugar water

    for sure it would be better than real 2022’s warped mirror on fading sanity

  15. just watched the preview… then YT tossed me into another Netflix preview…

    Taco Chronicles: Cross the border

    not quite full on “Twilight Zone” but for sure Scalzi burrito-adjacent


    my next Netflix pitch!

    “UnHoly Burritos of ” (inspired by that dude in Ohio)

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