TODAY | October 16, 2012
>>> with all eyes on tonight's presidential debate , pizza hut thought it might be an opportunity to rise a wave of attention with a contest, but now the company is doing some backtracking on that idea. nbc's kerry sanders is in ft. lauderdale to explain. kerry, what's up?
>> reporter: well, good morning, matt. on paper this must have sounded like one of those can't miss publicity gimmicks. at the debate the candidates will be asked questions directly from members of the audience, so pizza hut now it would be cute if somebody in the audience asked the candidate sausage or pepperoni.
>> hello. that's right.
>> reporter: the online commercial was taken down from youtube by pizza hut .
>> the next debate is town hall style which means real people ask real questions.
>> reporter: idea was plant the question in the audience at the debate.
>> if someone asks a question about the pizza during the next debate on october 16th , pizza hut will supply them with free pizza for life.
>> reporter: but the pizza giant with more than 6,000 restaurants in the united states did not anticipate the backlash.
>> not really a question you should be asking people that are going to be the leader of the free world .
>> it's an advertising ploy, and i don't think that that has a place in politics.
>> reporter: some customers who have seen both candidates enjoying slices across america say the negative reactions are humorless.
>> there always has to be a little humor in debates, so this creates a little humor.
>> reporter: but when this was on youtube on pizza hut 's own youtube channel , some customers posted absolutely disgusting promotion and terrible idea. this is serious. on twitter, if pizza hut thinks asking a pizza question at the debate is important, then it is important that i never order another pizza from them. and then the headlines followed, including this one on gawker. want free pizza hut pizza for life? just make a mockery of the american democratic system on live tv . on comedy central .
>> folks, i love this. what could be more american than using our electoral process for product placement?
>> reporter: we've heard silly questions to candidates before.
>> mr. president, the world's dying to know. is it boxers or briefs?
>> usually briefs.
>> reporter: but marketing executives say it's a different time in america.
>> the debate isn't about whether pizza hut 's campaign is humorous or not. the debate is really is it appropriate for a brand to insert itself commercially into a public forum ?
>> reporter: pizza hut says that the contest is now online so everyone can participate, not just those at the debate tonight. they do say, however, if somebody does ask that question at the debate, they will still honor the free pizza offer. matt.
>> all right, kerry, thanks very much. donny deutsch , the ad guy and image guy is here. are you now going to stop advising pizza hut ?
>> actually it's a brilliant idea you.
>> really like the idea?
>> beyond the obvious that we're in a discussion here, i mean, we do have this complete blending of immediate why and celebrity and politics and commercialism. a lot of people would go yuk, but a lot of young people , the core pizza audience would say cool pizza hut . it's crass but very effective.
>> it's crass.
>> only you would think it's cool.
>> i didn't say it was cool.
>> you need to put both fingers in your ears to block out the boos.
>> somebody will ask.
>> but it will drive pizza