The Truth About Pizza Hut And Papa John's '90s Legal Battle

Feuds over food are not a new thing. Long before the battle of the burgers between McDonald's and Burger King became a thing, there was a serious rivalry between two heavyweight brands over an equally heavyweight food item — pizza.

Pizza Hut and Papa John's have had a long history of taking digs at each other through advertising. Frank Carney and his brother Dan founded Pizza Hut in 1958 with a $600 loan from their mother. The Carney brothers quickly found success with their pizza restaurant and expanded one outlet into a 145 franchise chain within a decade of its opening (via Encyclopedia). In 1977, they sold Pizza Hut to PepsiCo. and two years later, Frank walked away from the pizza chain. Now here's where everything changed.

Frank not only walked away from Pizza Hut, but he walked into Pizza Hut's rival brand Papa John's and bought several franchises of the latter in Kansas (via Mental Floss). Sensing a golden opportunity for advertising here, Papa John's filmed an advertisement with Frank where he walks into a meeting of fellow pizza store owners and announces that he's found a better pizza. The better pizza was Papa John's. The clear picking of sides coming from the previous owner of Papa John's rival was game-changing. And, so began a decade-long conflict between Pizza Hut and Papa John's that went from taking advertising digs to a serious legal feud.

Pizza Hut and Papa John's both ran commercials attacking each other

Although Frank Carney walking away from Pizza Hut and swearing allegiance to Papa John's considerably hurt Pizza Hut's brand, what they took issue with throughout the '90s was Papa Johns' slogan, "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza" (via Mental Floss). The slogan was coined by Trout & Partners in 1995 for Papa Johns' owner John Schnatter, but it did not sit well with Pizza Hut's president, David Novak.

Novak took Papa John's claim to be the better one of the two pizza chains very seriously and launched a pizza war against its rival. He spent nine months and $50 million to make the quality of Pizza Hut's pizza better. Later, he filmed a commercial standing on top of a World War II plane and declared a war against all pizzas of poor quality (hinting at Papa John's, of course) and dared pizza fans to find a better pizza than the one at Pizza Hut. If they did not like Pizza Hut's new pizza, their pie would be on the house.

In return, Papa John's ran another advertisement attacking Pizza Hut's dare to find a better pizza. This was not just a sly dig at Pizza Hut where, consumers were supposed to read between the lines, oh no. Their ad featuring John Schnatter himself, showed Papa John's trying an independent taste test where people can be seen enjoying the pizzas at Papa John's more. The reason, the ad claims, is that Papa John's uses fresh tomatoes for their pizza sauce as opposed to Pizza Hut's "pre-manufactured paste."

Pizza Hut's sales took a hit

Papa John's ran several ads emphasizing their slogan — "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza" — at the cost of Pizza Hut. In a 1997 ad, Papa John's is shown using filtered water to make its pizza dough and the ad accused other pizza chains, aka Pizza Hut, of using dirty tap water (via Mental Floss). Another advertisement in print saw Papa John's using fresh tomatoes for its pizza sauce, claiming that Pizza Hut used xantham gum and hydrolyzed soy protein in theirs.

These slight digs here and there were starting to cost Pizza Hut a heavy price. Mental Floss reports that Pizza Hut saw an 8% decline in its sales, whereas Papa John's saw an 11% increase. David Novak even went to Better Business Bureau's National Ad Division with his grievance only to have Papa John's be let off with a slight warning.

Then, Novak filmed the ultimate commercial against Papa John's. He took a clip out of Papa Johns' previous commercial where John Schnatter said, "We never use dough made the same day." The context that Pizza Hut omits, is Schnatter explaining that Papa John's uses only the best pizza dough which is made by letting the dough ferment for a few days, and so, the chain never uses dough made on the same day. Except in Pizza Hut's commercial, it seems like Schnatter is just admitting that Papa John's make their pizzas with stale dough.

Pizza Hut took Papa John's to court

After finding no luck with the National Ad Division, Pizza Hut filed a federal case against Papa John's in 1998 for false advertising. Pizza Hut brought in scientific evidence from experts to debunk Papa Johns' slogan claiming "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza", as well as the chain's other advertisements (via Mental Floss). Jon Faubion, a baking science expert and professor at the Kansas State University, testified in the court that none of what Papa John's claimed made them the better pizza chain and Pizza Hut the inferior one was scientifically true. Pizza Hut argued that Papa John's advertising was puffery and wasn't backed by any substantial evidence. The judge ruled in favor of Pizza Hut and ordered Papa John's to stop using their slogan and pay up $12.5 million to Pizza Hut in damages (via The Balance Everyday).

However, Papa John's appealed the verdict, claiming that their slogan, "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza," was a mere opinion, and therefore, could not be misleading. The brand argued that it wasn't any different from Pizza Hut's claim that it made "the best pizza under one roof." The appeals court ultimately ruled in Papa John's favor and they got to keep their slogan, as well as the $12.5 million in damages.

Although Papa John's won the decade-long advertisement and legal battle against Pizza Hut in the '90s, it's interesting to see that Pizza Hut far exceeds Papa John's in terms of sales today. According to a 2019 report, Pizza Hut had sales of $12 billion, making it the second-largest pizza chain in the U.S., and Papa John's came fourth with $3.6 billion in sales (via Largest).