The Battle Between Papa John's and Pizza Hut

Papa John's founder John Schnatter
Papa John's founder John Schnatter. Denise Truscello/WireImage/Getty Images

You've seen the ads. You know the tagline: "Better ingredients. Better pizza. Papa John's."

Papa John's founder John Schnatter makes the claim in almost every ad he throws onto the airwaves, radio stations, and these days, online buys. But sometimes he takes that claim beyond the ads, which is evidenced by a battle between Papa John's and Pizza Hut that began way back in 1998. 

The Birth of a Slogan...and a Battle.

In 1995, Papa John's hired a consulting firm called Trout & Partners, and they coined the tagline that has become synonymous with the now multi-billion-dollar company.

At the time, Papa John's had just a quarter of the stores that Pizza Hut had, so the focus was not on accessibility, but quality. "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza" was a winner. 

But not with everyone. 

David Novak, President of Pizza Hut at that time, was more than a little upset by the phrase. The natural inference people were making was "oh, they're better than Pizza Hut's ingredients." But where was the proof? How could Papa John's get away with saying such a thing?

The war of words turned into a nationwide advertising offensive, with attack ads coming from both sides. Papa John's listed unsavory ingredients found in Pizza Hut recipes. Pizza Hut used Papa John's own advertising against it. And then, the lawsuits began. 

Papa John's vs. Pizza Hut

CEO John Schnatter claimed Papa John's pizza was "better" than Pizza Hut's. It was a claim Pizza Hut didn't take lightly. In fact, the company's lawyers filed a federal false advertising lawsuit against Papa John's.

The problem stemmed from Papa John's famous slogan, coupled with a national advertising campaign. One of the ads stated Papa John's "won big time" in taste tests over Pizza Hut. Other ads in the campaign alleged Papa John's sauce and dough were better than Pizza Hut's because they were made with fresh tomatoes and filtered water and did not include ingredients like “xanthan gum” and “hydrolyzed soy protein.” 

That aggressive ad campaign prompted Pizza Hut to file the false advertising lawsuit. The company's lawyers said they had scientific evidence proving Papa John's ingredients didn't actually affect the pizza's taste.

The Legal Decisions

Initially, a jury sided with Pizza Hut, agreeing that Papa John's claims of better sauce and dough were false or misleading. The judge ordered Papa John's to stop using the "better ingredients, better pizza" slogan and awarded Pizza Hut $467,619 in damages. A drop in the bucket for Pizza Hut, but the real prize was getting Papa John's to stop using the slogan. The judge told Papa John's to stop using any materials with that slogan, pull ads, and also pay Pizza Hut $12.5 million in damages. 

If you're thinking, "hang on...they're still using that tagline," then strap in. The story is just getting started. 

Papa Johns appealed the decision. The company stated that the slogan was simply a matter of opinion, not to be taken as literal fact. They, as a company, believed they used better ingredients, resulting in better pizza. And how could Pizza Hut claim to have "the best pizza under one roof" with a straight face?

The federal appeals court said the jurors were never asked if consumers relied on Papa John's "better" claims when deciding what pizza to buy.

And so, in September 2000, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict and ruled in favor of Papa John's. John and his company were allowed to use the slogan again and did not have to give Pizza Hut the $12.5 million damages sum.

The Aftermath

To this day, the rivalry between Pizza Hut and Papa John's is more than friendly competition. The lawsuits made a lasting impression, and, allegedly, their rivalry is so fierce that Pizza Hut reserves any phone numbers that spell out the letters P-A-P-A just so Papa John's can't use them.

The "better-best" argument also had a lasting impression on advertising. 

You've seen commercials where a company claims to have the "best" thingamajig. "Best" can be used without having to backup your statement. However, when you use "better," you "better" have proof to substantiate your claim, or risk getting into another heated lawsuit.

 

Now, almost 20 years after the lawsuits began, Papa John's adamantly denies Pizza Hut's false advertising charges. The company's lawyers maintain the statements made in the ad campaign aren't false but were merely statements of personal taste.

Lawyers for Pizza Hut said Papa John's ads violated federal law. They claimed, even without evidence, that customers relied on the "better ingredients, better pizza" slogan on which to base their pizza-buying decision; thus, Papa John's ad campaign is deceptive in their eyes.

Pizza Hut execs continue to say the decision was unfair to both consumers and responsible advertisers. But with both companies and Dominos doing very well these days, ​the in-fighting may have just brought more attention and more sales to all parties.