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When national, major events focus the attention of the U.S. consumer public, many advertisers see the event as an opportunity for them to compel some attention of their own. Think Budweiser, highlighting its annual Bud Bowl during the Super Bowl broadcast.

Presidential elections are no different. Local bakeries offer cookies emblazoned with the candidates’ faces, then offer unofficial polls of who seems likely to win. Across the country, 7-Eleven stores make special versions of their coffee cups so consumers who stop in for their morning jolt can pick one of the two major party candidates—or an “Undecided” cup.

If it is so common, then why did Pizza Hut get in so much trouble for its choice stunt? It promoted a “Pizza Party” promotion, encouraging a choice between pepperoni and sausage, with a free pizza-for-life giveaway as the prize.

The difference was that the winner of the free pizza would be anyone who was willing to stand up during the town hall–style presidential debate and ask the candidates which meat they preferred. The backlash in response to this irreverence was quick and scathing. Commentators accused Pizza Hut of mocking the very notion of democracy and pandering to an absurdist view, rather than taking the issues that the candidates were debating seriously. The Associated Press even warned that such stunts would ruin the tradition of presidential debates entirely.

Thus the contest quickly changed, from a dare to a more traditional form that allowed anyone to vote online for their favorite topping. A randomly selected user would win the lifetime supply of pizza. And neither candidate would be forced to make the choice between pepperoni or sausage on national television.

Source: Shareen Pathak, “Pizza Hut Back Out of Presidential Debate Stunt, Shifts Campaign Online,” AdAge, October 12, 2012; Natalie Zmuda, “Every Cup, Every Coffee Counts: 7-Eleven, Others Conduct Presidential Polls,” AdAge, October 9, 2012

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