ET has the exclusive first look at the series going inside John Leonard's battle with Pepsi over a Harrier jet.
With nostalgia for the '90s showing no signs of slowing down, a new Netflix docuseries is turning its attention to the soda wars that consumed the early half of the decade and an unexpected scandal that resulted from a hastily made TV ad. ET has the exclusive trailer for Pepsi, Where's My Jet?, which chronicles a teenager's battle with the soda brand over a sweepstakes promising one ambitious consumer the chance to win a Harrier jet valued at $23 million.
As teased in the trailer, John Leonard was the kid who came up with a plan to collect enough "Pepsi Points" in order to redeem them for the military aircraft after seeing a commercial advertising a new "Pepsi Stuff" loyalty campaign. Not seeing a disclaimer for the jet, which was featured as the punchline at the end of the ad, he eventually teamed up with a friend and investor named Todd Hoffman and the two took the soda brand up on its supposed offer, which eventually led to a lawsuit and media scandal that became part of Pepsi's ongoing legacy.
In addition to Leonard and Hoffman, the four-part series features new interviews with the many minds behind the company's biggest campaigns at the time, Jeff Mordos, Brian Swette, Michael Patti and Don Schneider, as well as model Cindy Crawford, who was the star of many of Pepsi's most iconic ads.
"It's a generational story," says director Andrew Renzi. The case, Leonard v. Pepsico, Inc., not only helped shape the decade, but the outcome has had a long-lasting impact that's still seen today. Ahead of its debut on Nov. 17, Renzi spoke to ET about the series and teased what's in store for this wildly fascinating dive into a time when Pepsi went from battling Coke to taking its own consumers to court.
ET: What was it about this story that when you first heard about it you knew it would make a good documentary or made you interested in retelling it on camera?
Andrew Renzi: I quickly realized that it had all the elements of what I wanted to do at that moment, and that specifically was that it had a story that I grew up with -- the mid-'90s were a pretty formative time in my own life -- and then I think, most importantly, it's when I found John and when I found Todd that I realized that there's just a story about adventure and boundless wonder. It had this Spielberg quality to it that I just loved so much.
There's not a lot of documentaries that get to be made about a young man who just has great intentions and goes up against the world and tries his hardest to make something happen. I love the idea that we could do something that just really celebrated adventurousness and celebrated that fearlessness.
Then, also to go along with that too, the friendship between him and Todd. As soon as I met those two, I was like, "Everybody needs a Todd in their life."
John and Todd are a great duo here. Based on his charm and charisma on camera, though, you’d never suspect that John took some convincing to do this. Why do you think he was so hesitant at first?
There's no question it took some convincing. He was such a hard person to track down, first of all, because he was living in Denali, Alaska, for a really long time. So, he is living in this park and he is doing the park services and so I actually called the hotline at the park. This woman answered the phone and I was like, "Oh, I'm trying to find John Leonard." And she just had this little chuckle and goes, "This must be about the Pepsi case." And she was like, "I can't give you his number, but I can tell him that you called."
So, it's been two years since we sort of started this thing. When I was reaching out to him, there was apparently some activity and it was kind of bubbling up, so it took him some real convincing to decide to wanna reopen this and do it. And I think at the end of the day, we all realized that it was an incredible decision. Like, we've all come out of this feeling like it was worthwhile and we loved the process, so that's great.
I also grew up in the '90s, but I do not remember this story. I mean, I remember the ads, but not the case surrounding the Harrier jet. And so, I think this is a story many may not know or barely remember. With that in mind, what was it like putting it all together here, knowing that some people may be just learning about this or that you're introducing this saga to a whole new generation?
Just to be clear, I definitely didn't remember the actual mechanism of this story. I was like, there's this Harrier jet thing, but I don't remember it perfectly. But I obviously remember the soda wars, like you said, and the explosion of the '90s pop culture within the advertising world.
One of the things I love about the challenge of this is that documentaries right now are very much becoming more accessible for public audiences. They're a little more pop culture. People are consuming them. There's just been a real boom for people to watch documentaries. And so, I approached this one with that flair of the '90s, with the pop culture flair and tried to give it the energy that we remember from that time. So, it's a way for newer audiences to know how the '90s felt.
It was the first time really when celebrities were aligning with brands and it wasn't considered uncool. Like, it wasn't selling out. If you were a big celebrity and you were promoting Pepsi, it was a part of culture. Like, that's what ends up happening for some reason. And now, if you watch TV, every single commercial is a major celebrity that we all love. You know, John Hamm is on every commercial, like every five minutes and it's crazy.
So, there was this huge inflection point in the '90s that I think is really fun to try to capture and the spirit of this story sort of exists underneath that. You have this completely unknown kid from Seattle that was the most unlikely person to ever go up against Pepsi. He basically closed his eyes and put his head down and tried his hardest to make something happen.
You touched on my next question, which is about this current era of '90s nostalgia that we're in. What is it like to take this nostalgia and look at it through the lens of the soda wars and what happened with John?
I was really happy that I had a pretty specific entry point and then I also had a pretty universal relationship and a theme with the friendship and present-day kind of plot going on. So, I was really fortunate to -- because I agree with you, I think that as soon as you get into projects where it's just another nostalgia piece, it lacks a little bit of universality or it lacks a little bit of teeth -- and I think the great thing about this project is that the story exists within a time capsule but it applies to today.
The legacy of the case is like ever present. If anyone goes to law school, they study this case. If you think about the legacy of commercials on television, when was the last time you saw a commercial that did something like this without making sure that there was a disclaimer on it?
One of the other things I love about this is that if this had happened today, Pepsi never would've gotten away with it. There would've been a million people on Twitter pulling their points to go get this jet. And it would've been an absolute bombardment of social media and social influence.
And I think that this is such a great moment in our social fabric because John kind of had to act alone… It's kind of cool that he still was willing to do it. And it shows you why there were so many less stories like this because back then you really had to make that decision, you had to make that leap.
What was it like getting Cindy Crawford for this? And why was it important to have her be part of this series?
Well, I mean, there was a moment when we were coming up with the approach for the show and we made a list of people that had participated in the Pepsi world at that time. We listed out people and there was just a glowing name on that list and it was Cindy Crawford. And it was like, "This is the person that, if we were gonna try to encapsulate what the '90s felt like, especially when you think about young people like the John Leonards of the world, Cindy Crawford was the icon."
She was the one that really kind of captured the spirit at that time and of those ads. And we all knew that she was the perfect person to try to get for it. And then, just as a team, we banded together and I have to say, I think it was kind of the best-case scenario that one of these sort of perfect stories you hear, where she ended up being the coolest person ever. She just showed up and did the most loveliest interview and was so cool and was really gracious with our time and allowed us to ask questions. She looked incredible, she was incredible on camera and it was just really great.
What is the central message or what is the major theme that you hope people glean from watching this series?
The thing that I love most about this show -- and I don't wanna say comparatively to other shows at all, I just mean within the scheme of what's out there right now -- I love the idea that a documentary can explore something that has such a good spirit. Like John Leonard, he was just a kid that wanted to try to do the impossible and he just tried to do whatever he could to make it happen. And along the way there were twists and turns and there was growth along the way and there were pitfalls, so it just has this really traditional story arc that I just love so much that we don't often see in documentaries. We don't get to celebrate people that often and with docs a lot of times, they're focused on heavier subject matter or tragedies. And I just love the idea that we're, like, celebrating boundless spirit and boundless energy.
I think our takeaway can just totally be that you can approach things that seem impossible with a good spirit, and regardless of the outcome, that journey was worthwhile. That is something that I've always walked away with, no matter how cheesy it might sound.
Pepsi, Where's My Jet?, from executive producers Andrew Renzi, Andrew Corkin, Nick Boak, Theo James, Andrew Fried, Jordan Wynn, Dane Lillegard, Sarina Roma, debuts Nov. 17 on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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