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Can M&M’s Pull Off Its Super Bowl Spokescandy Stunt?

Recent drama over M&M’s “spokecandies,” leading up to parent company Mars’ planned M&M’s ad during the 2023 Super Bowl, may illustrate the perils of marketing amid culture wars.

MMs candy gd257181e0 640As The New York Times reports, the saga began in January 2022, when Mars rebranded its candy mascots to be more inclusive. The orange M&M acknowledged his anxiety disorder, a move that the company said then was a bid to attract Gen Z. The so-called “sexy” green M&M swapped out high-heels for sneakers.

The move drew swift outrage from online commentators and FOX News personality Tucker Carlson, who said, “M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous.”

The back-and-forth between M&M’s spokescandies and Carlson didn’t stop there, of course. In September, Mars unveiled a new, purple-M&M spokescandy, which the company said was “designed to represent acceptance and inclusivity” as the first female peanut M&M. In January, Mars touted limited-edition M&M packages containing only its candies represented by female characters: green, purple, and brown. Fox News pounced. “Woke M&M’s have returned,” Carlson said, while another host on the TV channel said the woman-associated M&M’s packet would lead to Chinese global conquest.

More recently, the company said the M&M’s characters would be taking “an indefinite pause” and be replaced by actress Maya Rudolph. While some viewed the decision as backing down to Carlson, a company spokesperson hinted it was a publicity stunt for the Super Bowl, telling the Times, “We’re confident that fans who have embraced the M&M’S brand purpose and the refreshed characters launched in the past year will be pleased.”

Industry experts criticized M&M’s handling of its campaign. Alex Center, a former brand strategist for Coca-Cola, told the Times that M&M’s should have tried to “own the story”—the entire discussion going on about their brand—rather than “trying to push it one way with a cheery message of unity.” Center recommended the brand should embrace its role on the culture wars’ front lines and make fun of itself.

Debbie Millman, co-founder of the School of Visual Arts’s graduate program in branding, told the Times that it was a mistake for M&M’s to suspend its spokescandies, even as a stunt. “If they really wanted to make a change and a stand for what they believed in, they should have the backbone to stick with it,” Millman said, contrasting M&M’s approach with Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick in 2018.

Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told CNN, “I think M&M’s stumbled into a more political debate than they had hoped to.”

Geraldo Matos, associate professor of marketing at Roger Williams University, told the news channel that M&M’s “may have placed themselves smack dab in the middle of upsetting both parties.”

Public relations expert Andrew Graham, in an op-ed for The Drum, called for M&M’s to do something “more ambitious” than a set of commercials or else risk handing victory to Carlson. “Today, brands need to do real things in order to build up brand equity with the growing population of consumers who make purchasing decisions based on the values of brands,” Graham wrote.

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