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Why Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? is irresistible—and should be Netflix’s new true-crime model

Why Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? is irresistible—and should be Netflix’s new true-crime model
John Leonard and Todd Hoffman today, as seen in Netflix's Pepsi, Where's My Jet? (Image via Netflix)

A grocery store cart being loaded with Crystal Pepsi, the sound of a dot matrix printer scraping across paper, Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies, Oprah: Netflix’s Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? is a bathtub filled with 1990s pop culture and consumerism into which real-life characters jump in and splash around.

They’re retelling a story that you can read on Wikipedia, but in such a playful way the events come back to life in a quick, irresistible watch.

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?’s story is quite simple: In the mid-1990s, Pepsi aired an ad that said 7 million Pepsi points could be exchanged for a Harrier Jet, with no disclaimers, so 21-year-old Andrew Leonard decided to take them up on that offer. He enlisted an investor, John Hoffman, to help get money to buy the points necessary, Pepsi laughed and then sued him.

This is a story—unlike so many other Netflix doc series—that has a clear end. No one’s dead, no one’s being accused of killing them, there’s no one for the Internet to investigate. There’s just a college student’s ambition to hold a corporation to its word.

John Leonard, photographed in the 1990s, as seen in Netflix's Where's My Jet?
John Leonard, photographed in the 1990s, as seen in Netflix’s Where’s My Jet?

Director Andrew Renzi has access to the major players, from the Pepsi executive responsible for the campaign to Andrew Leonard’s mom. Even the side streets he wanders down aren’t distractions, like when the first female pilot to fly the Harrier Jet, Jenna Dolan, explains what flying the jet in question is actually like.

Renzi has his subjects do the Pepsi Challenge, and their reactions at their selection—surprise, horror, laughter—are a disarming way of introducing them. While it’s not new for documentary directors to include off-camera moments, the footage Renzi uses are not gotchas (“killed them all, of course”) but pure personality.

We meet Todd Hoffman “Somewhere in the Mountains,” where he talks about his trout-stocked lake, and then says, “But I won’t tell you the address so you won’t steal all my fucking trout.” Hoffman is the breakout star, starting with his episode-one declaration that both Pepsi and Coke “both taste like shit.”

“Just ad lib in your own words,” John tells his mom, who’s quick to laugh about all of this.

An actor playing John Leonard looks in a mailbox on Netflix's Pepsi Where's My Jet
An actor playing John Leonard looks in a mailbox on Netflix’s Pepsi Where’s My Jet (Image via Netflix)

These are the opposite of typical stiff, talking-head interviews, and along with some clever choices in presentation, the story stays engaging. Archival footage sets the scene, a handful of graphics fill in gaps, and the editing can get cheeky (a line over some stock footage made me laugh out loud).

So much true crime—and so many of Netflix’s documentary series—are just pumped full of wasted time. The economics of producing television mean that it’s easier to produce a series than a feature, even if the story is only deserving of a movie-length story.

Here, there are just four episodes, ranging from 36 to 43 minutes, so there’s no time for lingering drone shots of barren landscapes.

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? is pure energy, a Pepsi or two straight into your bloodstream, from its energetic soundtrack to its clever and witty choices in its storytelling, like the use of the Peanuts’ adult voice to fill in half of a conversation that a Pepsi creative exec is recounting.

Even the recreations are playful. An actor playing Andrew watches the original Pepsi commercial when his furniture starts to shake, wind blows his hair and paper, and his dog cowers in fear, as if there was an alien invasion. In a clever bit of editing, the real-life subjects’ voices are sometimes dubbed over the actors saying the same words in the recreations.

John Leonard being interviewed on Netflix's Pepsi, Where's My Jet?
John Leonard being interviewed on Netflix’s Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? (Image via Netflix)

Netflix’s true crime has been spotty and particularly irresponsible for a company with its global reach; production companies dredge up old cases and use real people’s stories and trauma to create disposible entertainment.

Ever since Making A Murderer, Netflix has increasingly delivered series that pale in comparison. We’ve seen “poor investigating” and a “dangerous” legitimization of conspiracy theories, and even a show accusing someone of murder. That’s all packaged in a way that makes them watchable enough to surface to Netflix’s top 10, so now Netflix is doing that with scripted series, too.

The time-wasting detours in those alleged documentaries often drag innocent, private people into the public eye, offering them on a plate to the Internet to “investigate” and accuse.

The nature of the story behind Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? means that there’s no such possibility here. (Okay, I probably shouldn’t tempt the Internet to prove me wrong.)

The villain, if there is one, is Pepsi, though even the Pepsi executives featured here aren’t blamed. It’s corporate America, the idea that corporations can make claims in ads and not deliver, all while profiting. It’s part of our daily life, the “wellness” and supplement ads scrolling by with their nonsense claims.

The consequences here are light—a 21-year-old won’t get a jet, oh no!—though the episode-four story about an Pepsi campaign gone wrong in the Philippines is particularly heartbreaking, and deserving of a separate story.

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? avoids polemicizing, though there’s a clear focus on advertising and its claims, along with some asides about things like the media’s increasing need for content in the 1990s and how people who legally challenged corporations were vilified, such as the still-misunderstood McDonald’s hot coffee incident.

There are also some direct lines to the present, most notably the presence of Michael Avenatti, who’s interviewed while under house arrest, though it avoids that he’s now in prison for defrauding Stormy Daniels and extorting Nike, which is a layer of complication the series does not address.

Mostly for the better, Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? keeps its time immersed in the events of 1995 and 1996, from the news footage to the reenactments to the stories being told by the people who lived them. And that makes for an sweet, bubbly good time—and a model Netflix should use for future documentary series. When you have a good story, you don’t need forced mystery or production manipulation to entertain.

Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?

A sweet, bubbly good time—and a model Netflix should use for future documentary series A

What works for me:

  • The wildly entertaining presentation
  • A great story for a “true-crime” documentary
  • The efficient episodes

What could be better:

  • Not much!
  • More of Pepsi’s legal perspective, though I can understand why that’s not here

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

Discussion

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Happy discussing!

Abdul Miah

Wednesday 23rd of November 2022

I watched it. I always preferred Pepsi over Coke. That changed after this documentary. I will not be buying another Pepsi product again. Very unethical, greedy, misleading... It's shameful. Pepsi kept saying it was a joke, but they used that as an advertisement piece, listed the number of points needed for the jet, even went to change it later. Pepsi kept laughing it off, but most people were not laughing. Classic example of judges and lawyers being paid off by big corporation for favor of a company, one that was involved in false advertising. Where was the fine print if it was a joke? Pepsi needs to deliver John his jet (even though case is dead) or provide money equal to the value of a jet (like all other advertisers promises on and delivers). SHAME ON PEPSI for deceiving people.

Melissa

Tuesday 22nd of November 2022

That sounds interesting; thanks for the recommendation!

Eric

Monday 21st of November 2022

I thought the documentary was overlong. It also omitted some really important contextualizing information. I cover both points in my review, https://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/2022/11/review-of-the-pepsi-wheres-my-jet-netflix-documentary.htm