It’s the stock footage of a squirrel that really tells you what kind of show you’re watching.
Granted, Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?, a Netflix documentary series about a bizarre court battle from the 1990s, is light-hearted from the get-go. It opens with a montage of interviewees taking the Pepsi Challenge, then blasts C + C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” over old news footage of John Leonard, who got famous in 1996 when he called the food and beverage conglomerate’s bluff over a commercial that suggested it would buy a Harrier jet for anyone who collected 7 million “Pepsi Points.” He was so tenacious about this — and got so many people to support him — that his demand for a fighter plane made it to court. It’s only natural for a doc to have fun with this silly little story.
But then comes the scene where 20-year-old Leonard and his friend Todd Hoffman, a wealthy businessman he met on a climbing expedition, decide to mail a check to Pepsi for $700,000, which was enough to buy those Pepsi Points. This is visualized with an animated rocket zooming across the sky toward Pepsi headquarters, and at one moment, there’s footage of an adorable squirrel gazing at the heavens as the rocket flies by.
This is when the series transcends mere goofiness to become sublimely absurd. Instead of just mocking this story, it revels in it. It celebrates the why-the-hell-not commitment of a guy with a goal, and by adding zany graphics and over-the-top reenactments, it lets us laugh along with him.
Ironically enough, this lack of seriousness also gives the series room to explore heavier themes. If the entire show, which is produced and directed by Andrew Ranzi, tried to be somber or intellectual, it would be fatuous. But because it treats Leonard’s mission with the proper amount of disrespect, it earns our trust when looking at weightier issues running underneath his story.
A big one, for instance, is how corporations manipulate consumers into buying their products. The third episode reveals that while he was looking for dirt, one of Leonard’s representatives (the recently disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti) uncovered a Pepsi promotion in the Philippines that ended in deadly riots after the company refused to pay people who presented bottle caps that were supposedly worth thousands of dollars. Avenatti tried to spin that disaster into a slimy PR coup, but the point is still valid: Running a commercial that tells teenagers they can win an airplane is part of an overall culture of deceit disguised as advertising.
Ranzi also lands enlightening interviews with several of the advertising execs and Pepsi marketing suits who made the notorious ad in the first place. After some petty finger-pointing, they have frank conversations about the pressure of their business, the frenzy of the ’90s “cola wars,” and their understandable assumption that nobody would see a kid in a commercial land a jet in front of his high school and think, “Yes. This is my destiny.” It’s a good way to remind viewers that corporations are frequently just collections of people trying to do their jobs, right down to Cindy Crawford, who is interviewed about starring in her own famous Pepsi spots. Sometimes those jobs corrupt or misguide them in terrible ways, but sometimes, they simply encourage people trying to hit a deadline to run a spot without considering all the consequences.
It’s easier for the series to use a light touch because nobody involved in Leonard’s odyssey got hurt. This isn’t the mobbed-up con job exposed by McMillions or the homicidal catastrophe that Ranzi chronicled in his Hulu docuseries about the Von Dutch brand. Considering that Leonard and Hoffman are still friends, it’s almost a feel-good epic about two unlikely heroes, or at least two goofballs with a particularly good story to tell.
Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? premieres November 17 on Netflix.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.