Debate publicity stunt aims for the meat of the matter

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NEW YORK (AP) — During the next presidential debate, the candidates will be pondering the important questions of our time. But the most controversial may be “Sausage or pepperoni?”

Pizza Hut is offering a lifetime of free pizza — one large pie a week for 30 years — or a check for $15,600 to anyone who poses the question to either President Barack Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the live Town Hall-style debate next Tuesday.

The proposed stunt, which the pizza chain announced Tuesday, threatens to tick off millions of viewers who are expected to tune in to the debate to hear what the candidates have to say about the economy, health care and other serious concerns facing this country.

Pizza Hut’s move comes as marketers continue to look for new ways to engage TV audiences that increasingly are resistant to their traditional commercials. It’s also happening at a time when Americans are paying closer attention to presidential debates. On Oct. 3, an estimated 67.2 million people watched the first debate between Obama and Romney, the largest TV audience for a presidential debate since 1992, according to Nielsen’s ratings service.

Even if Pizza Hut’s stunt doesn’t turn off viewers, Laura Ries, president of Atlanta-based brand strategy firm Ries and Ries, said it still will likely fail. That’s because it does not substantially connect back to the Pizza Hut brand.

“The problem is that it’s too contrived; it’s completely made up,” she said. “For something to move past silly gimmick and become more successful brand connection, it does have to have some sort of relevance.”

To its critics, Pizza Hut, a unit of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum Brands Inc., said there is room for both serious and lighthearted questions in the debate, which will be broadcast on most network and cable news stations.

“We know there are a lot of serious topics that are going to be debated and need to be debated,” Pizza Hut spokesman Doug Terfehr said.

But Terfehr said the pizza chain, which operates 10,000 restaurants in 90 countries, saw this as a way to ask an “everyday question” that people can relate to. “Pizza seems to be a question everyone understands.”

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