NEW YORK — Pizza Hut is rethinking its contest daring people to ask "Sausage or Pepperoni?" at the presidential debate Tuesday.
After the stunt triggered backlash last week, the company says it's moving the promotion online, where a contestant will be randomly selected to win free pizza for life.
The pizza delivery chain had offered the prize — a pie a week for 30 years or a check for $15,600 — to anyone who posed the question to either President Barack Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the live Town Hall-style debate.
But blogs and media outlets immediately took the pizza delivery chain to task for trying to capitalize on the election buzz by injecting itself into the process.
Pizza Hut spokesman Doug Terfehr said the majority of the feedback the company has seen has been very positive. He said that moving the contest online was a "natural progression of the campaign" after people got excited about the idea and "wished they could get in on it."
Pizza Hut, a unit of Yum Brands Inc., says it will still honor the prize if someone poses the question live at the debate. But it's encouraging everyone to participate in the new online version, where contestants must enter their email addresses and zip codes to be eligible. The company will award two prizes if someone does ask the question.
The change comes after Pizza Hut's stunt became the butt of jokes last week.
In a segment on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report," host Stephen Colbert asked, "What could be more American than using our electoral process for product placement?"
Colbert said the prize for a free Pizza Hut pie every week meant that "if you eat one of their pizzas every week, you will die in 30 years."
The blog Gawker wrote about the stunt under the headline, "Want Free Pizza Hut Pizza for Life? Just Make a Mockery of the American Democratic System on Live TV." The site wrote that all the contestant had to do was "embarrass themselves on live television before the President of the United States and millions of their fellow Americans."
Pizza Hut's stunt comes as TV audiences have become increasingly resistant to traditional commercials. As marketers look for new ways to engage viewers, the presidential election has presented a rare opportunity.
Earlier this month, an estimated 67.2 million people watched the first debate between Obama and Romney. That made it the largest TV audience for a presidential debate since 1992, according to Nielsen's ratings service.
This isn't the first time a promotion tied to current events has backfired. Last year, Kenneth Cole compared the Arab Spring uprisings to a frenzy over the U.S. designer's spring collection; the company later apologized.
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