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A slice too far

Pizza Hut backs off presidential debate stunt after critics call ad too intrusive

After sparking widespread disapproval for attempting to tap into the Oct. 16 presidential debate, Pizza Hut yanked its offer of free pizza for life to the individual who asked the candidates whether they preferred sausage or pepperoni as a topping for their pies.

Instead of awarding the prize to a questioner of President Barack Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during the town-hall debate, Pizza Hut retooled the ad into an online sweepstakes in which one voter would randomly be selected to receive free pizza for life.

In the shifting world of restaurant marketing, the Dallas-based pizza purveyor inadvertently may have helped clarify just how far a brand is allowed to inject its message into an already-charged political environment. Other chains have run election-themed promotions during campaign season, but officials at those brands said striving to keep things innocuous rather than intrusive was key.

“As social media and brand interactions change, we move away from ‘the old way,’ where a company would just make a few ads and run them and let PR people handle the traditional news outlets,” said Charlie Hopper, a principal in the Young & Laramore agency in Indianapolis, in an e-mailed statement. 

“We all know marketers are constantly trying to find ways to get people to interact voluntarily with their brand because they’re relevant and fun,” he continued. “But there’s a line you can cross where you’re interfering unnecessarily with really crucial national events. Pizza Hut just helped us define that line.”

Game change

Kurt Kane, chief marketing officer for Pizza Hut, which operates or franchises more than 10,000 restaurants in 90 countries, acknowledged in a statement that the offer created what he called “buzz.” The offer was issued Oct. 9 and promised one pizza per week for 30 years or $15,600 to anyone asking the question during the live debate.

“We’re no longer asking a few hundred attendees at the town-hall presidential debate on Oct. 16 to pose the question,” Kane explained. “Rather, we’re bringing the question — sausage or pepperoni? — to millions of Americans.” 

Ridicule of Pizza Hut’s move had come from late-night television comedians and a wide variety of publications and Web news sites. Andrew McCarthy at wrote that between the first presidential debate’s mention of Big Bird and Pizza Hut’s promotion, “We’re officially a boxers-or-briefs question and a rose ceremony away from this race devolving into some sort of bizarre episode of ‘The Bachelor.’”

However, not all observers characterized the failed stunt as wholly negative. Laura L. Martin, a partner with the Results Thru Strategy marketing consultancy, said, “There’s the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity, so they certainly have gotten a lot of mileage out of that [where] they ordinarily wouldn’t have.”

Martin added that Pizza Hut’s creativity has earned admiration, in fact, but the timing may have been unfortunate.

“This is a time that our industry needs to stand tall against quite a few issues that we are facing with the government,” she said, citing menu labeling and soda bans. “We need to make sure we are being taken seriously. Inserting ourselves into the governmental process with humor might not be the best foot forward for the industry as a whole.”

Advertising Age commented Oct. 15 that, “in short, there was an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the stunt, but at the same time, Pizza Hut managed to garner a wealth of press in the span of a few days.”

That’s the ticket

Under the new promotion, customers sign up at the Pizza Party microsite, leave an e-mail address and get free Stuffed Pizza Rollers with their online order.

That move is wise, Martin said. 

“They’ve gotten enormous exposure, and they’ve been able to really leverage it in a way that works to their advantage,” she said. “That’s pretty shrewd.”

Pizza Hut has been able to get its promotion broadcast widely in a season when political advertising has sent the cost of airtime skyrocketing, Martin said. 

“Media gets completely locked up,” she said. “And if there is any availability, it’s extremely expensive. So restaurant marketers have to look for some alternative ways [to get their messages out].”

However, many restaurant chains have found less controversial ways of using the election season as a marketing platform.

Laguna Beach, Calif.-based zpizza, a chain of more than 100 locations, is executing its own campaign in which brand founder Sid Fanarof is running for president on the “Pizza Party” ticket. Between Oct. 6 and Election Day Nov. 6, customers are invited to join zpizza’s loyalty club, ztribe, to be entered into weekly drawings for prizes. On Nov. 6 the chain will roll back its prices to 1986, the year zpizza was founded. 

The theme of “Just Prizes, No Politics” was important to Fanarof because he felt the promotion would have the greatest chance of succeeding if zpizza remained apolitical in appearance and intent.

“There was a concern that people may take it a little too seriously,” Fanarof said. “But you just have to stay as neutral as you can. We modified our posters when they seemed to lean too much toward one party.”

Some chains are counting on people to take sides in their election-themed promotions by ordering one partisan menu item over another. Rockville, Md.-based California Tortilla’s quadrennial promotion to pit two candidates’ burrito bowls against one another this year features the Obama’s Chicken Teriyaki Luau Bowl versus the Romney’s Mexican Mitt-Loaf Bowl. 

Legal Sea Foods in Boston also has dueling Blue Plate and Red Plate specials.

While zpizza’s Fanarof opted against getting customers to vote through the menu, he still wanted to raise voter awareness.

“There are political implications to the cost of pizza because commodity inflation and global warming are linked closely with politics,” he said. “So even with pizza it’s hard to stay apolitical sometimes, but we’ll leave those decisions to the voters. We just want people to know they have a choice.” n

Mark Brandau contributed to this report.

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