Pizza Hut Backpedals on Presidential Debate Stunt

It's a question routinely fretted about in my household on a Friday night, but "Sausage or pepperoni?" doesn't rise up to the kinds of meaty deliberations we should be asking presidential aspirants to weigh in on.

Pizza Hut tried to inject itself into the upcoming debate between President Obama and Gov. Romney by offering to provide a pie every week for 30 years to the brave soul who would stand up and make a fool of himself by asking one of the candidates that question. After the contest generated a bit of negative coverage for the Yum! Brands (NYS: YUM) unit, the company quickly backpedaled and said it would instead run the contest online, where you had to enter your email address and the winner would be picked at random. Pizza Hut hasn't said whether it will award two prizes if someone is still dumb enough to ask.

6 or 8 slices?
Asking stupid questions of presidential contenders has become chic ever since Bill Clinton chose not to invoke executive privilege when asked "Boxers or briefs?" at a town hall-style event sponsored by Viacom's (NAS: VIA) MTV in 1992 (Obama got asked the same question by a gossip magazine when he was running for office in 2008 ).

Last year, during early Republican candidate debates, CNN asked each of the candidates a host of such silly questions. Pizza was even brought up when Herman Cain, the board chairman of Godfather's Pizza, was asked "Deep dish or thin crust?" (the answer was an emphatic "deep dish").

So the hubbub over Pizza Hut's ploy is a bit much ado about nothing, but it does highlight the risk companies undertake in trying to engage in edgy marketing.

Birds of a feather
Of course, Yum! is no stranger to marketing gone awry, as a few years ago its KFC division got people clucking when it went to the queen of product placement, Oprah Winfrey, who generated so much demand for their promotion that it had to end the promotion early, causing a lot of ill will. Smoothie maker Jamba (NAS: JMBA) had a similar experience with a product giveaway that was quickly canceled.

The merger of pop culture and corporate culture is a hard enough game plan. Just ask McDonald's (NYS: MCD) , which tried to spur positive, feel-good stories about the chain with a Twitter campaign only to end up with the hashtag being taken over by those registering complaints about the burger joint. Both Toyota (NYS: TM) and Acura have spammed Twitterers with unwanted messages in campaigns that have gone horribly wrong. When you add in politics, you're bound to upset someone.

Any way you slice it
Considering how much the mainstream media injects pop culture into politics, and how much politicians themselves cozy up to media stars, Pizza Hut's offensive marketing strategy seems more molehill than mountain. (Though when unemployment is around 8%, we still have wars being fought, Iran might go nuclear, Europe is imploding, and our own economy is hanging by a thread, injecting your company into what should be a serious forum is offensive.)

Moreover, while the town hall debate is a more open forum than what we saw in the last debate between the two candidates, it's not so freewheeling that someone would be able to get to ask the question in the first place.

Perhaps Yum! really just wanted to gin up some controversy to get people talking about Pizza Hut rather than have someone actually ask the question. For one, my local pizzeria might get as much business from the question, since "Sausage or pepperoni?" doesn't even relate back to the chain. Pizza Hut also says moving it online was a "natural progression" once people started talking about it.

That could generate just as much controversy as the original ploy, and might end up burning the pizza chain and Yum! Brands like hot melted cheese sticking to the roof of your mouth.

Eat in or to-go?
Do media campaigns like Pizza Hut's make the company look edgy and worth ordering a pie from? Or does injecting dopey corporate marketing into a serious forum make you think Papa John's or Domino's might be the pizza shop you'll be visiting next time? Sound off below!

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