Rarely has candy so deeply divided a nation as M&Ms did a year ago, when parent company Mars said it was giving its colorful characters a makeover to be more reflective of today’s society.
That debate quickly reignited this week, when the company said it was putting its popular cartoon candies on an “indefinite pause.” Instead, actress Maya Rudolph will be taking their spot as brand spokesperson, the company said in a tweet.
“In the past year, we’ve made some changes to our beloved spokescandies,” the company 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 refresh your memory, this all started when the green M&M switched out her high heels for sneakers last January. The company said it was part of a redesign to make the characters more inclusive and “representative of today’s society.” The move sparked backlash from conservative circles at the time, with commentators such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson commenting that the company had become too “woke.”
While the issue gained some traction again last September, when the company introduced a new purple M&M in honor of International Women’s Day, the furor over the M&Ms style change had mostly died down by the time the company announced it was pausing its cartoon characters. That’s left many to wonder why M&Ms chose to dredge the controversy up again—especially because now it’s receiving flak from both ends of the ideological spectrum.
To experts, however, this could just be a marketing ploy leading up to the company’s much-teased Super Bowl ad.
“Pulling the spokescandies is a very clever way to drum up attention and stand out from the typical marketing efforts that big brands tend to roll out around the Super Bowl,” wrote Samantha Edwards, chief creative officer and co-founder at The Charles NYC. “Using cultural moments and celebrity spokespeople practically screams Super Bowl marketing strategy.”
As to exactly what the aim of the strategy could be is still anyone’s guess.
Baruch Labunski, CEO of digital marketing company Rank Secure, posits that the Super Bowl ad sees the candy characters making a heroic comeback in response to overwhelming popular support. Some experts have harked back to Planter’s ad a few years ago that killed off its emblematic Mr. Peanut character, only to resuscitate him shortly thereafter
The company may also be ready to pivot to a new type of campaign and was looking to phase out the spokescandies anyway, Labunski added, making this type of announcement a perfect out that allows the company to “milk publicity.”
It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that the amount of buzz over a brand doesn’t always translate to a boost—or decline—in sales, said Olivier Toubia, marketing professor at Columbia Business School. The sentiments prevalent on social media can differ widely from actual purchasing behavior, he added. Even if somebody had strong opinions about what shoes the M&M was wearing, there’s a strong likelihood they would continue to buy the candy if they were partial to it, he said.
“I don’t know what fraction of the market actually cares about the type of shoes the M&Ms wear,” he added.
Mars didn’t respond to Barron’s request for comment on whether the move was tied to a marketing strategy. The Super Bowl is on Feb. 12—so we’ll have a more concrete answer by then, or perhaps another M&M-fueled culture war.
But at the end of the day, isn’t all publicity good publicity anyway?
Write to Sabrina Escobar at email@example.com