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'Smoking' pizza billboard majorly backfires, police bombarded with calls

Local authorities are not amused with one store's unusual marketing efforts.
Pizza Hut in Louisiana
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/ Source: TODAY

Many people enjoy a freshly baked pizza that's so hot, it's still steaming from oven.

But a Midwest-based convenience store chain has learned that a steaming pizza isn't always a good thing.

Motorists driving by the Casey's in Mounds View, Minnesota, on U.S. 10 near Interstate 35W junction have taken note of a relatively new billboard sign that features a larger-than-life pepperoni pizza that appears to so hot, that's it's steaming ... or is it actually on fire and smoking?!

A lot of people passing by weren't quite so they've been calling the local authorities.

Minnesota resident Sam Alexander-Seday passed the billboard during his commute to work and took note of the unusual display. He ended up calling an emergency response hotline, and was told there was no fire, but that what he had just seen was a rather unusual marketing stunt.

“Casey's pizza has taken the hot and fresh marketing a bit too far,” Alexander-Seday wrote in a Facebook post about the incident.

This Casey's has been using a discreetly placed fog machine behind the sign to create the illusion of a piping hot pizza. But the overall effect looks more like smoke than steam.

“Everybody that drives by thinks the billboard is on fire,” Alexander-Sedey told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. He said the operator told him “they had been fielding hundreds of calls all week.”

So is the Casey's pizza sign a playful joke or a public nuisance?

"We received several 9-1-1 calls from motorists who actually thought that the billboard was on fire," Greg M. Buelow, Public Safety Communications Coordinator for the city of Cedar Rapids, told TODAY in via email. "There appeared to be smoke coming from the billboard. Our local zoning code prohibits signs that incorporate projected images, emit any sound that is intended to attract attention, or that emit odor or visible matter such as smoke or steam."

Buelow continued to explain that "these types of signs can be a distraction for motorists."

However, Buelow said that a picture with information about the sign has become one of the department's most popular social media posts. "Some of the comments to the post were engaging, such as those suggesting that the advertiser should deliver pizzas to police officers, firefighters and dispatchers for the inconvenience of all of the calls," said Buelow.

However, the billboard in Mounds View isn't the only smokin' hot Casey's sign around. The chain does have over 2,000 locations in the U.S., after all.

"We have three billboards in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Minneapolis with fog to simulate steam," Art Sebastian, vice president of digital experiences for Casey's, told TODAY "Our idea is to simulate reality … our pizzas are fresh, handmade and hot and steamy!"

While authorities may not be appreciate the waste of emergency response resources, Sebastian said the consumer response "has been great!" A few authorities who have seen the sign are in on the fun, too. "Some local police departments and fire departments have also had fun with the billboards … posting on social media to call us for pizza."

As of Thursday, Sebastian said Casey's has no plans to remove any of the steam-simulating billboards from their eye-catching spots along the highway. However, the steaming simulator behind the billboard in Mounds View has been turned off ... for now.

Said Sebastian about the board, "Our customers love them!"