Food & Drinks

Backlash Or Marketing Savvy? M&Ms And The Perils Of Brands Playing The Culture Wars

Here’s an excerpt from this week’s CxO newsletter. To get it to your inbox, sign up here.

This week, after reading that the candy company Mars Wrigley was putting its new female candy characters “on pause” because they’d disrupted the peace of a polarized population, I was reminded of another purple character that became symbolic of much that was wrong with the world to some pundits.

In early 1999, when my friend was allowed to carry an antique 6-foot spear on board a plane because it didn’t fit in his luggage, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. made headlines for warning that a dumpling-shaped TV character forged in the U.K. was promoting a gay lifestyle to children. Falwell saw Tinky Winky, a manly purple “Teletubby” with a triangle on his head and a cute red handbag, as a danger. (For those raised on Monty Python and The Magic Roundabout, it was another day of TV.)

As Falwell argued to Today interviewer Katie Couric at the time, Tinky Winky could lead to ”little boys running around with purses and acting effeminate and leaving the idea that the masculine male, the feminine female is out, and gay is O.K.” The televangelist and Moral Majority founder apparently didn’t notice that a purple singing dinosaur named Barney was belting out “I love you, you love me” in a different time slot.

That controversy was arguably blown out of proportion on both sides. Falwell later admitted he had never heard of Tinky Winky or Teletubbies prior to publishing an opinion piece by someone else in his National Liberty Journal; he’d simply used the reaction as an opportunity to proselytize his anti-LGBTQ+ stance. Pundits and journalists, meanwhile, had a field day in using Tinky Winky as a symbol to mock Falwell and the religious right.

Candy for Conservative Pundits

Fast forward a generation and the purple threat this time is an anthropomorphized M&M that, along with her brown and green sisters, has been mocked as “woke” and unattractive by Fox News host–and Moral Majority progeny–Tucker Carlson. No need to revisit all the details. Just picture some lout like, say, Biff from Back to the Future, and imagine his face upon learning a hot candy character swapped stilettos for practical block heels.

Carlson knows what makes for good TV. So of course, upon learning that the female candy characters are back, this time holding hands and hanging out on “all-female” candy packs to raise money to help women, he used that in his show too. The woke M&Ms were back, he declared, and now there’s a lesbian and obese one, too. (Honey, go grab me a Nestle for Men) Director Greta Gerwig can take comfort in knowing she’ll probably get plenty of air time when her feminist take on Barbie finally comes out later this year.

Was the candy company Mars trying to be inclusive and inspirational in creating a more diverse range of M&Ms characters? Without a doubt. Was it genuinely trying to engage customers in an effort to bring money and attention to women who were “flipping the status quo?” Absolutely. Could it have predicted similar blowback from a similar cast of characters when it built on its previous campaign? Probably.

So why did it fold?

Oops, We Broke The Internet

That’s unclear. What’s most surprising about this latest battle in candy land is that Mars decided to put its candy mascots on “indefinite pause” mere weeks after its campaign launch. In a tweet posted Monday, the company sounded almost triumphant in noting that “even a candy’s shoes can be polarizing” while claiming they never intended to “break the internet.” (They broke the internet?)

To be clear, the “controversy” over the characters’ footwear broke a year ago. It certainly didn’t stop the M&Ms crew from launching “Purple” as an inclusive candy character in September. And yet the latest barbs being hurled at its latest “all-female” candy campaign have now proved to be too much. To bring everyone together, Mars said it had to take drastic action. Good-bye for now, “spokescandies.” Hello spokesperson Maya Rudolph! (Be sure to join us at Super Bowl LVII to find out more about Rudolph’s new ad!)

Now, like Pavlov’s dog, we are supposed to blame the angry extremists, far-right commentators and narrow-minded n’er-do-wells that bullied a good brand into shutting down a fun-loving campaign that aimed to support and empower women. Don’t get me wrong. I have a lesbian daughter and am deeply disturbed by the constant efforts of some commentators to dehumanize certain segments of the population for sport, ratings or to reinforce their fragile sense of self.

All the more reason for a company like Mars to resist playing into the culture wars to generate buzz for its products. Announcing that it was sidelining “the girls” to make way for Ms. Rudolph (who’s now tasked with bringing us together in a way that candy-coated chocolate cannot) in a cheeky social-media message was ham-handed, if nothing else. Left or right, many of us don’t really buy into the idea of empowered candy.

I confess that when I was pitched on M&M’s latest marketing ‘campaign’ to support women that launched on Jan. 5, I passed. (Hey, Mars, I changed my mind!) Something about celebrating “all-female” packs in which the females were actually cartoon candy characters felt contrived and not newsworthy. I vaguely recalled the made-for-TV kerfuffle over the characters’ shift to more practical footwear and more inclusive images a year earlier but didn’t really care if Tucker Carlson thought this new crop was a more dateable batch of candy. Outrage is baked into his brand. I’m not interested in promoting more polarization by playing that game.

So why is Mars making a big show of sidelining characters it was pitching two weeks ago? It’s hard to know how this artificial brouhaha has impacted sales. As a private family-owned business, Mars does not have to report earnings. I can say those peanut M&Ms are often the first to go in the Forbes kitchen. M&Ms are also coming back to the Super Bowl and Mars has plenty of other products that could have had star billing. (A moment of silence for that iconic Snickers commercial with the late Betty White.)

More important, Mars is a company that does care about inclusion. Having interviewed Victoria Mars when she received the “Holland on the Hill Heineken Award” in 2016, I know that she and the family have a deep and longstanding commitment to diversity and creating opportunities for women. So does Maya Rudolph, which makes her an odd celebrity to hold up as one who can bring us all together.

All the more reason not to play this game. As a set-up, it’s not very funny. Many brands are struggling to find common ground in our increasingly polarized country. Mocking or making a show of folding to the more hate-fueled elements of society doesn’t help anyone.

I’m curious to hear what others think. If all press is good press, I guess this is a slam dunk. (Apologies, football fans.) But it feels like a tactic that’s making sport of a real problem we all need to solve.

CxO will be on hiatus next week as I take a break. See you soon.


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