Over the past year, M&M's has been the subject of Fox News tirades and criticism from a small segment of fans — first for changing the Green M&M's footwear and more recently featuring female M&M characters on its packaging for International Women's Day.
So this week it announced a change: Following the flood of attention its characters are going on an "indefinite pause," handing off spokesperson responsibilities to actress and comedian Maya Rudolph.
Given the outsize attention, some think M&M's announcement is a PR stunt to hype its upcoming Super Bowl commercial. But experts note not all publicity is good. And M&M's may just be trying to regain control of a narrative that has spun out of control.
"I think M&M's stumbled into a more political debate than they had hoped to," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
M&M's relatively subtle changes aimed at inclusivity didn't seem like they were designed to spark much controversy, if any. But that's not how things turned out.
'Either you back away or ... get into a fight'
M&M's first unveiled changes to its characters in January 2022, like changing Green's go-go boots for sneakers and swapping out other characters' shoes in what the company called effort to make the characters more relevant and inclusive. Its message was similar in September when adding Purple, a new female character. Then earlier this month the company celebrated Women's Day by flipping the Ms in its logo upside down to look like Ws — a typographical trick that McDonald's utilized five years ago.
Fox News derisively deemed the brand "woke" after the brand altered the characters' shoes. Tucker Carlson complained about the candy characters' new and, from his perspective, less "sexy" look.
"M&M's will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing," Carlson said.
The take machine whirled online, too, from Twitter to publications. At the Washington Post, for example, an opinion piece declared "the M&M'S changes aren't progressive. Give Green her boots back." And after the introduction of Purple and the Women's Day package, Fox News once again took aim at the brand.
"What M&M'S has tried to do over the past few years is to be very inclusive, and to ensure that these characters represent in a positive way," said Calkins, the Northwestern professor. "They've been quite deliberate in their efforts to do that."
What they didn't want was to end up a target for right-wing commentators. "I think they desperately didn't set out to become a target for Fox News," Calkins said. "There's only two ways you really can play it here. Either you have to back away from the characters, or you have to stand up and really get into a fight."
This week's announcement suggests M&M's decided to go with the first option. But it's doing so with a wink at the controversy, a strategy that may ultimately play out in its favor.
If, of course, the brand can pull it off.
'Even a candy's shoes can be polarizing'
When M&M's announced its partnership with Maya Rudolph, it alluded to the reaction to Green's shoes.
"In the last year, we've made some changes to our beloved spokescandies," M&M's said. "We weren't sure if anyone would even notice. And we definitely didn't think it would break the internet. But now we get it — even a candy's shoes can be polarizing."
To say that the reaction to Green's shoes broke the internet may be overstating things, to M&M's benefit. But the statement itself sparked more reaction online, with other brands like A&W piggybacking to get some attention themselves.
And it's hard to measure any sales impact of the character changes or the reaction to them. The brand has seen a "record-breaking amount of interest in and conversions about our spokescandies," according to a spokesperson. But owner Mars, which is private, does not share sales figures.
Rudolph will star in an upcoming ad during the game, but the company announced the commercial back in December before the latest round of criticism, adding that the partnership was not just a knee-jerk move.
The deal with Rudolph has been "in the works for a while," said Gabrielle Wesley, chief marketing officer for Mars Wrigley North America, in a statement this week. "Let me say conclusively that this decision isn't a reaction to but rather is in support of our M&M's brand," Wesley said.
As for the spokescandies — they may be benched for now, but they're not going anywhere.
"The original colorful cast of M&M's spokescandies are, at present, pursuing other personal passions," Wesley said. Fans will learn more about their situation in the coming weeks, according to the brand. Taking them out of the spotlight wouldn't be unusual for M&M's: The characters have been around since the 1950s, and over the years M&M's has leaned on them more or less heavily in promotions.
But there's a risk to pulling back, noted Geraldo Matos, associate professor of marketing at Roger Williams University. Customers may wonder whether M&M's has turned its back on the original plan of using ideas of inclusivity to market its product. "They may have placed themselves smack dab in the middle of upsetting both parties."
Giving the characters a break seems like a good strategy to Lauren Labrecque, associate professor of marketing at the University of Rhode Island.
"I think they're going to bring back the characters and probably within a year's time, if not less," she predicted. "And when they come back, people — especially M&M's fans — will have all forgotten what even the controversy was, and will be very welcoming."
Plus, she added, this is a low-stakes situation. "It's not a serious outrage," she said. On the spectrum of brand controversies, "this is so inconsequential." Because of all that, "it's going to be a net positive."
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