The Controversially Macabre Last Meal Pizza Hut Commercial

Beyond its iconic red roofs and crispy crusts, Pizza Hut has long been known for its boundary-pushing advertising. Many of the chain's commercials tickled viewers' funny bones and taste buds, but other attempts were in poor taste.

The franchise has certainly taken some successful big swings, featuring celebrities from Donald Trump to Ringo Starr in its commercials. Where other fast food chains chose safer and simpler ads with mouth-watering shots of food taking center stage, Pizza Hut often opted for more extreme methods. In its infamous 1998 Mikhail Gorbachev ad, available on YouTube, Russians thanked Gorbachev for freedom, opportunity, but above all: Pizza Hut. And no, the franchise didn't stop there! Just evoking Gorbachev's name wasn't enough. The ad's final scene featured a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo of the esteemed international leader serving pizza to a child. 

While many of its ads like this one were hits, Pizza Hut's flair for the dramatic didn't always pay off. The controversy following one of its 1985 ads proved that some of these efforts weren't worth the risk and that the marketing team's creativity should have limits.

Too dark for TV?

While many of its advertising attempts have kept things cheesy and lighthearted, Pizza Hut took a dive into gallows humor with a dark 1985 commercial. The advertisement featured a man on death row choosing to eat pizza from Pizza Hut as his last meal before he is executed. Although the man in the commercial is pardoned at the last second, he refuses to part with the delicious pizza he's about to dig into.

The concept of a "last meal" before one faces the death penalty has persisted since the Last Supper. In the U.S. states where capital punishment is legal, the tradition has been increasingly met with red tape around which foods are permitted and how much the meal can cost. The extravagant final meals of notorious criminals have long been subject to public scrutiny. Despite the public's own macabre interest in the final culinary choices of doomed prisoners, some may have considered it a step too far for Pizza Hut to riff on this tradition in an advertisement for fast food.

Adding insult to injury, the ad was run by accident in South Carolina, where convicted killer Joseph Carl Shaw had recently been executed after ordering a pizza and salad as his final meal, per the LA Times.

Fallout of the controversy

The commercial was a misfire on many accounts, especially given it was never meant to air in South Carolina in the first place, per AP News. While the South Carolina Department of Corrections clarified that Joseph Shaw did not order his last meal from Pizza Hut, the comparisons between the commercial and the real-life prisoner were inevitable.

The advertisement only aired on a few stations, but enraged viewers quickly called in to voice their complaints about the dark advertisement. Some thought the ad was rewarding criminals while others found it a cheap, insensitive take on the controversial issue of capital punishment. Before the outrage could grow any larger, Pizza Hut pulled the commercial from South Carolina and leadership in the company recognized their mistake. While Pizza Hut continues to push the envelope in its advertising, the company hasn't gone down such a dark road since. It's likely the franchise has learned its lesson.