How M&M’S is making the most of the spokes controversy

New York

Over the past year, M&Ms have been the subject of Fox News tirades and criticism from a small segment of fans – first for changing the green M&Ms shoes and more recently with female M&M characters on the packaging for International Women’s Day.

So this week it announced a change: after the flood of attention, the characters go on a “indefinite pause”, with the spokesperson’s responsibilities handed over to actress and comedian Maya Rudolph.

Given the massive attention, some think M&M’s announcement is a public relations stunt to hype up the upcoming Super Bowl commercial. But experts note that not all publicity is good. And M&Ms may just be trying to regain control of a story that’s gotten out of hand.

“I think M&Ms have gotten into a more political debate than they’d hoped,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

M&M’s relatively subtle changes focused on inclusivity didn’t seem intended to spark much controversy. But it didn’t work out that way.

M&M’s first revealed changes to its characters in January 2022, such as replacing Green’s go-go boots with sneakers and swapping other characters’ shoes in what the company called an effort to make the characters more relevant and inclusive. The message was similar in September when Purple, a new female character was added. Earlier this month, the company celebrated Women’s Day by flipping the Ms in its logo upside down to look like Ws — a typographic trick McDonald’s used five years ago.

Earlier this year, M&M'S released limited edition packs featuring the female trio of Green, Brown, and Purple ahead of International Women's Day.

Fox News mockingly found the brand “awake” after the brand changed the characters’ shoes. Tucker Carlson complained about the new and, from his perspective, less “sexy” look of the candy characters.

“M&Ms won’t be satisfied until every last cartoon character is very unattractive,” said Carlson.

Online, too, the take-machine turned from Twitter to publications. For example, an op-ed in the Washington Post stated: “The changes in M&M’s are not progressive. Give Green her boots back. And after the introduction of Purple and the Women’s Day package, Fox News again targeted the brand.

“What M&M’S has tried to do over the years is to be very inclusive and make sure these characters are portrayed in a positive way,” says Calkins, the Northwestern professor. “They’ve been very conscious in their efforts to do that.”

What they didn’t want was to become a target for right-wing commentators. “I think they weren’t desperate to be a target for Fox News,” Calkins said. “There are only two ways you can really play it here. Either you have to back away from the characters, or you have to get up and start fighting for real.”

This week’s announcement suggests that M&M’s has decided to go for the first option. But it does so with a nod to controversy, a strategy that may ultimately work out in its favour.

If the brand gets it done, of course.

When M&M’s announced its collaboration with Maya Rudolph, it alluded to the reaction to Green’s shoes.

“In the past year, we’ve made some changes to our much-loved spokes movies,” M&M’s said. “We weren’t sure anyone would notice. And we certainly didn’t think the internet would break. But now we get it — even a candy’s shoes can be polarizing.

To say that the reaction to Green’s shoes destroyed the internet might be an exaggeration, in favor of M&M. But the ruling itself caused more reactions online, at other brands like A&W piggyback to get some attention yourself.

And it’s hard to measure the sales impact of the character changes or the response to them. The brand has seen a “record-breaking amount of interest in and conversions on our spokescandies,” according to a spokesperson. But owner Mars, who is private, does not share sales figures.

Rudolph will star in an upcoming ad throughout the game, but the company announced the commercial in December before final criticism, adding that the partnership wasn’t just a hasty move.

The Rudolph deal has been “in the works for a while,” Gabrielle Wesley, chief marketing officer for Mars Wrigley North America, said in a statement this week. “Let me say suffice it to say that this decision is not in response to, but rather in support of, our brand of M&Ms,” said Wesley.

As for the spokescandies – they can sit on the couch for now, but they’re not going anywhere.

“The original, colorful cast of M&M’s ghost candies is currently pursuing other personal passions,” said Wesley. Fans will learn more about their plight in the coming weeks, the brand said.

A tweet from Snickersalso owned by Mars, suggests they could be used in the chocolate bar campaign.

However, taking the spokes out of the spotlight wouldn’t be unusual for M&M’s. The characters have been around since the 1950s, but over the years M&M’s has leaned more or less heavily on them in promotions.

But there’s a risk in pulling back, noted Geraldo Matos, an associate professor of marketing at Roger Williams University. Customers may wonder if M&M’s has turned its back on its original plan to use ideas about inclusivity to market its product. “Maybe they put themselves right in the middle to upset both sides.”

Giving the characters a break seems like a good strategy for Lauren Labrecque, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Rhode Island.

“I think they’re going to bring the characters back and probably within a year if not less,” she predicted. “And when they come back, people – especially fans of M&Ms – will have all forgotten what the controversy was, and will be very welcoming.”

Moreover, she added, this is a low-stakes situation. “It’s not a serious outrage,” she said. On the spectrum of brand controversy: “this is so unimportant.” Because of all that, “it’s going to be a net positive.”

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