NEW YORK — 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, is unlikely to happen because of the strict rules that these types of debates typically follow. But if it does occur, it 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.
"It's a terrible waste of time for the presidential candidates, the people who organize the debate and everyone who wants to listen," said Mickey Sheridan, a 43-year-old bartender from Queens, N.Y., who is a Pizza Hut fan. "They should find some other way to advertise."
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.
It's not the first time a question that could be seen as frivolous has been asked of a president or candidate during a live, televised event. One of the most famous moments in TV history came during a 1994 MTV Town Hall when an audience member asked then-President Bill Clinton whether he wore "Boxers or briefs?" Clinton's sheepish response, "Usually briefs," became an indelible moment in pop culture.
But such moments don't always end well. During Obama's 2009 State of the Union address, for instance, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson yelled out "You lie, you lie." Wilson quickly apologized but was widely criticized by members of both parties for the breach of decorum.
"I think people are frustrated with the political process, but they don't want it to become a zoo," said Allen Adamson, managing director of branding firm Landor Associates in New York.
It can be even more difficult for marketers to get away with such outbursts. While companies long have used hot political topics to gain publicity for their brands, it can backfire. For example, there was backlash in February 2011 when Kenneth Cole compared the Arab Spring uprisings to a frenzy over the U.S. designer's spring collection. The company later apologized.
"Context really matters," said Deborah Mitchell, Clinical Professor of Marketing at Ohio State University. "Political satire is fine if it's in the context of where people are expecting it. When context is violated that's when you run into trouble."
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."
John Dunn, 51, a manager of a data center from North Carolina, said Pizza Hut's question is one that should not be asked during the presidential debate. "This election means a lot to me," he said. "I'd rather ask them a more important question if I actually had the opportunity to ask a presidential candidate a question."
To be sure, because of rules governing the debate, Pizza's Hut stunt may not even be possible. The first Town Hall-style presidential debate was in 1992 and there were not many rules, which made for a lively debate, says Alan Schroeder, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV."
But since then, campaigns have added many restrictions in their negotiations in the way audience members can ask questions. The terms for this year haven't been made public, but in the past, Schroeder notes that audience members have had to arrive early and write out their questions on notecards, with the moderator selecting among the questions that got the green light.
Even if someone attempts to ask the "Sausage or pepperoni?" question, it's likely they would get immediately shut down. That's because in 2004, campaigns negotiated a rule that an audience member's microphone would be cut off if they veer away from pre-determined questions.
In any case, Schroeder, the journalism professor, said he doesn't think anyone who makes it into the debate audience will dare pose the question to the candidates.
"It's so unseemly, for a lifetime of free pizzas, to make a fool out of themselves in front of millions of people," he said. "They'd have to give a partial ownership of the company for that."