Pizza Hut has backed off its planned stunt to get the question "sausage or pepperoni?" asked during the live, televised presidential debate Tuesday night.
The company had dared guests to ask President Obama and Mitt Romney to divulge their topping of choice during the town hall-style event in return for one large pizza every week for 30 years or a check for $15,600. But now, after a surge of disdain in response to the stunt, the pizza purveyor said it's putting the promotion online instead.
In a backtracking statement, the restaurant chain — owned by Yum Brands Inc. — said its "Pizza Party" effort was "originally intended for the candidates" but "will now instead be open to the public and asked online."
One participant will be randomly chosen to win the 30 years of free pizza.
"The anticipation and buzz around this question proves that this debate should be taken to the people," Kurt Kane, Pizza Hut's chief marketing officer, said in a statement. "We're no longer asking a few hundred attendees at the town hall presidential debate on Oct. 16 to pose the question, rather we're bringing the question — sausage or pepperoni? — to millions of Americans."
Although Pizza Hut tried to put the change in the best light, the original plan had prompted significant backlash. Twitter users slammed the company last week for "hijacking a presidential debate for marketing." Social media users derided the effort as "silly" and an example of "guerrilla marketing gone awful." Some said it was a sure sign that the U.S. was becoming an "idiocracy."
Stephen Colbert sneered on his television show: "What could be more American than using our electoral process for product placement?"
Pizza has been especially prominent in this year's election. During the Republican primaries, candidate and onetime pizza executive Herman Cain had a surge of popularity before fading out. On the Democratic campaign trail, Florida pizza parlor owner Scott Van Duzer made headlines last month when he lifted Obama off the ground in a bear hug.