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After reading this week that the M&M’s brand had decided to take “an indefinite pause” from using four-month-old Purple and its other spokescandies because their symbolism was polarizing, I was reminded of another purple character that once made other pundits fear for America’s future.
In early 1999, in the days when my friend could 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. Tinky Winky, a deep-voiced purple “Teletubby” with a triangle on his head and a cute red handbag, was a force of moral destruction to Falwell. (For those raised on Monty Python and The Magic Roundabout, a man-sized giddy plush toy was just 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 (a watershed moment in the life of this writer’s feet, I might add).
Carlson knows what makes for good TV. So upon learning that a new cast of M&M’s characters came back on Jan. 5, holding hands and hanging upside down because they’re here to flip the status quo, Carlson of course used it as fresh fodder to get a giggle and a gasp out of his fans. The “woke” M&M’s were back, Carlson declared, adding that 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 Mars trying to be inclusive and inspiring when it created a more diverse range of M&M’s 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 came back with a similar campaign? Yes.
So why did M&M’s suddenly fold?
Oops, We Broke The Internet
That’s unclear. What’s most surprising about this latest battle in candy land is the ease with which Mars kicked its cartoon candies out of the spotlight mere weeks after promoting them in this new campaign. In a tweet posted Monday from the M&M’s account, the company sounded almost triumphant in concluding that “even a candy’s shoes can be polarizing” while claiming that they never intended to “break the internet.” (This broke the internet?) A marketer from Mars doth protest too much, methinks.
To start, the supposed furor over the candy characters’ footwear and perceived lifestyle happened a year ago. Whatever trauma that caused certainly didn’t stop M&M’s from launching “Purple” as an inclusive candy mascot in late September. (One Fox anchor muttered it might be trans; Carlson seemed distracted by elections.) But all was quiet, apparently, until someone drew a trio of female candy characters standing upside down on selected M&M’s packages? Then it was, goodbye “spokescandies” and hello spokeswoman Maya Rudolph! (Subtext: Be sure to join us at Super Bowl LVII to check out 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. Where are they? I bet many of them never thought about M&M’s until the brand canceled itself.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a lesbian daughter and am deeply disturbed by the constant efforts of some commentators to dehumanize and marginalize groups of people for sport, ratings or to reinforce their fragile sense of self.
All the more reason for Mars to resist playing into the culture wars to generate buzz for its products. They wanted a top comedian to apply her talents to their brand, not appease Tucker Carlson. You know what’s not empowering to a woman? Telling her she’s being hired to replace a few pieces of candy—through a smug tweet, no less. And Rudolph is supposed to bring us together in a way that candy-coated chocolate cannot. Enough. Who cares if someone thinks Purple looks fat because the character covers a peanut? Asking Rudolph to play along with this script could easily become insulting.
I confess that passed on the idea of covering M&M’s first “all-female” marketing campaign because it sounded contrived to toss that moniker on candy. (Hey, Mars, I changed my mind!) I vaguely recalled the made-for-TV kerfuffle with Carlson last year, but I also didn’t care if he thought this was a more dateable batch of candy. Outrage is baked into his brand. I’m not interested in playing that game.
It’s hard to know how this brouhaha over woke candy has impacted M&M’s sales. As a private family-owned business, Mars does not have to report earnings. I can say that those peanut M&M’s are often the first to go in the Forbes kitchen. M&M’s are also coming back to the Super Bowl and Mars has plenty of other products that could have had such 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 to not taunters the taunters but instead move to a different playing field. Many brands are struggling to find common ground in a country where the red state/blue state divide sometimes feels like a gulf. Mocking or acquiescing in a ham-handed way helps no one. What made the Betty White spot so funny was the shock of seeing an 88-year-old woman get tackled in football practice and then trash-talk the player who did it while taking flak from the coach—before a bite of Snickers transforms her back to being another guy on the team with the tagline “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” It became a global campaign, portraying diverse actors in a range of hilarious situations .
Different brands, different tactics. If all press is good press—and we know it’s not—the latest M&M’s campaign could be a slam dunk. (Apologies, Super Bowl fans) But those that hurl vitriol at candy characters are really trying to diminish and demean the people those characters represent. One response could be to toss those characters back in the can, potentially silencing those it sought to empower. Another tactic could be to continue the campaign and the chest-thumpers who will eventually shut up.
CxO will be on hiatus next week as I take a break. See you soon.