There was a time when traditional TV advertising simply meant more than it does now. Yes, young readers, in the days before DVRs and streaming, ads had a real impact, not just on the bottom line of shareholders, but on actual pop culture. They shaped trends, fashion and even vocabulary and sometimes even defined what people considered cool. While Pepsi always trailed Coca-Cola when it came to market share, they were undeniably ahead when it came to what the youth thought was cool. Coke commercials featured animated bears; Pepsi had Cindy Crawford. Entering the “TRL” generation, Pepsi increased its dominance of the youth market in 1996 with a campaign called “Pepsi Stuff” where drinkers could turn their caffeine addiction into actual products. It was an early version of the widespread reward systems provided by so many companies today from Starbucks to Chipotle. And Pepsi launched it with an ad that got them into serious trouble. The entertaining four-part Netflix miniseries “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” not only playfully unpacks the details of what went wrong, but digs deeper to get to the heart of why false advertising matters. If no one keeps an ad to its word, it has no value.

John Leonard was in college in 1996 trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. The confidence in Pepsi’s advertising spoke to Leonard, and so he loved the idea of ​​the “Pepsi Stuff” campaign, but he was most captivated by the final shot of the commercial announcing it. In the ad, a teenager who reminded Leonard of himself displays products earned with Pepsi points before getting into a Harrier Jet on his front lawn over a caption claiming that this airplane is available for seven million points. There is no disclaimer. Pepsi would try to add one later and try to increase the amount to a more unreasonable number, but it wasn’t there when Leonard saw it and wondered if he could actually get that many points. He contacted a wealthy fellow named Todd Hoffman to see if he could help finance and facilitate the project, which turned a corner when Leonard noticed in the fine print of a Pepsi Points catalog that points could be purchased directly, and the price at seven million points did not come close to the actual value of a Harrier Jet.

At first, Pepsi thought Leonard & Hoffman were joking. Who would have thought that Pepsi was legitimately trying to give away a military-grade fighter jet? And director Andrew Renzi cleverly brings together the major players on both sides, including the designers of the ad campaign and the executives who clearly still harbor some resentment about how a kid in Seattle ended up putting them on the law books around the world. Of course, it wasn’t long before lawyers got involved. Pepsi even sued Leonard first, a bold move to get a favorable NYC arena that would be better for big business. And then Leonard got a future familiar face involved in the one and only Michael Avenatti, interviewed under house arrest for fraud and identity theft. Some of the most notable interview footage in the four-hour series is about when Avenatti is thrown into the chaos. Let’s just say some of the big players, including the very likable Hoffman, have some choice words for the man who will always be associated with Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump.

Netflix has a habit of stretching ideas way past their breaking point and turning something that could maybe be an episode of “20/20” for a miniseries. I assumed that would be the case here, but Renzi keeps it all lighter on its feet than most Netflix docuseries. It has a playful spirit that matches the era’s Pepsi ad campaigns with ’90s pop music and even fun things like having all interviewees take the Pepsi Challenge – a blind taste test of Pepsi and Coke. Renzi is clearly an ace interviewer, and it helps a lot that Leonard and Hoffman are just remarkably likable (even if Pepsi would disagree).

But the series is elevated most of all by the serious issues it explores. First, it feels like the Leonard/Pepsi drama was one of the first events that made companies as big as the soda giant understand their responsibilities when they pretend to sell more than just a product. Now companies interact with angry or excited consumers on social media, but this did not happen in the 90s, which created more of a firewall between managers and customers. And “Pepsi, where’s my jet?” takes what could have been a quirky anecdote and touches on how false advertising can be dangerous – a chapter on a Pepsi ad drama in the Philippines is fascinating (and actually could have been much longer). Should Pepsi have kept their Harrier Jet promise? It was probably a little unrealistic to ever think they would be, but companies have to be careful with the promises they make. When a company like Pepsi purports to sell more than just a drink, they have a responsibility about the messages they send. “Pepsi, where’s my jet?” really captures a company that tried to turn their reverence into profit, flying high on their own success, not thinking about where they might land.

On Netflix Thursday, November 17Th.

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