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Pizza Hut eats humble pie after debate PR stunt

6:57 AM, Oct 16, 2012   |    comments
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Does Pizza Hut have sausage - or pepperoni - on its face?

Less then one week ago, the pizza chain was on a presidential PR high. It created a stunt to convince attendees at Tuesday's Town Hall presidential debate at Hofstra University, to ask President Obama and Mitt Romney if they preferred sausage or pepperoni on their pizza. Anyone who simply posed the question was guaranteed free pizza for life. That's a free pizza a week for up to 30 years.

MORE: 5 things to watch for in Obama vs. Romney sequel

But Pizza Hut has changed its tune following a spurt of negative PR on blogs and in the media. "Some of the attention we received was not positive," concedes Kurt Kane, chief marketing officer. "So, we decided the question was better served online than in the debate itself."Oops. Pizza Hut is hardly the first to have a PR stunt go awry. Nor will it be the last. BMW had to apologize earlier this year after a PR offer to pay for the naming rights to a weather system backfired when the system turned into the deep freeze that claimed lives across Europe. And when rapper MGK performed at a Microsoft store in Orlando, earlier this month, store employees had to urge him to stop when he began destroying laptops as he performed.

Now, Pizza Hut is asking consumers to go online to discuss the pizza topping question - and it's no longer urging debate-goers to ask the question. PR and brand experts say Pizza Hut created its own PR mess.

"What a stupid idea," says Peter Madden, CEO of AgileCat, a brand consultancy. "It just seems like a thoughtless grab for a little bit of attention."

One publicist is incredulous at the stunt. "Is this really what we want our candidates to be talking about?" poses Katharine D. Paine, president of KDPaine & Partners. "Why muck up a serious debate with silly questions?"

Among the bad PR the stunt's received: A segment on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report had host Stephen Colbert posing: "What could be more American than using our electoral process for product placement?" And the Gawker Media blog posed this question: "Want Free Pizza Hut Pizza for Life? Just Make a Mockery of the American Democratic System on Live TV."

Pizza Hut will randomly choose one consumer who votes on the sausage vs. pepperoni topic on its site on Tuesday and reward them. While it's no longer asking attendees to pose the question to the candidates, it still will reward someone if they do, Kane says.

If Pizza Hut could rewrite the debate question to pose to the candidates, Kane says, he'd nix the sausage vs. pepperoni question for this one: "How are you going to make it great for Americans - like Pizza Hut does?"

USA Today

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