Over the past year, M&M’s has been the subject of tirades from Fox News and criticism from a small segment of fans – first for changing Green M&M’s shoes and more recently for featuring female M&M characters on its packaging for International Women’s Day.
This week, he announced a change: following the flood of attention, his characters embark on a “indefinite break“, entrusting the responsibilities of spokesperson to the actress and comedian Maya Rudolph.
Given the outsized attention, some believe M&M’s ad is a publicity stunt to promote its upcoming Super Bowl commercial. But experts note that not all ads are good. And M&M’s may just be trying to regain control of a narrative that has spun out of control.
“I think M&Ms have fallen into a more political debate than they had hoped,” said Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
M&M’s relatively subtle changes aimed at inclusiveness didn’t seem like they were designed to stir up much controversy, if any. But that’s not how things turned out.
M&M first revealed changes to its characters in January 2022, such as changing Green’s go-go boots for sneakers and swapping other characters’ shoes in what the company called an effort to make the characters more relevant and inclusive. Her 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 typographical trick McDonald’s used five years ago.
Fox News derisively opined that the brand “woke up” after the brand altered the characters’ shoes. Tucker Carlson complained about the candy characters’ new look and, in his view, less “sexy”.
“M&Ms won’t be satisfied until every cartoon character is deeply appealing,” Carlson said.
The take machine has also turned online, from Twitter to publications. In the Washington Post, for example, an opinion piece declared that “M&M’s changes are not progressive. Return his boots to Green. And after the introduction of Purple and the Women’s Day package, Fox News took aim at the brand again.
“What M&M’S has tried to do over the past few years is to be very inclusive and make sure these characters represent in a positive way,” said Calkins, the Northwestern professor. “They were quite deliberate in their efforts to achieve this.”
What they didn’t want was to become the target of right-wing commentators. “I don’t think they were desperate to become a target for Fox News,” Calkins said. “There are only two ways to play here. Either you have to walk away from the characters or you have to get up and really fight.
This week’s announcement suggests that M&M’s has decided to go with the first option. But he does it with a nod to controversy, a strategy that could ultimately work in his favor.
If, of course, the brand can get away with it.
When M&M’s announced its partnership with Maya Rudolph, it alluded to the reaction to Green’s shoes.
“Last year we made a few changes to our beloved spokespersons,” M&M’s said. “We weren’t sure anyone would notice. And we certainly didn’t think it would break the internet. But now we get it — even candy’s shoes can be polarizing.
To say that the reaction to Green’s shoes broke the internet is perhaps an overstatement, to M&M’s benefit. But the statement itself drew more reactions online, with other brands like A&W piggyback to get attention themselves.
And it’s hard to gauge the sales impact of character changes or the reaction to them. The brand has seen “a record number of interests and conversions about our spokespersons,” according to a spokesperson. But owner Mars, who is private, does not share sales figures.
Rudolph will star in an upcoming commercial during the game, but the company announced the commercial in December ahead of the latest round of criticism, adding that the partnership wasn’t just a instinctive move.
The deal with Rudolph has been “in the works for some time,” Gabrielle Wesley, chief marketing officer for Mars Wrigley North America, said in a statement this week. “Let me say conclusively that this decision is not a reaction but rather an endorsement of our M&M’s brand,” Wesley said.
As for the spokespersons – they may be benched for now, but they’re not going anywhere.
“The original colorful cast of M&M’s Spokespersons are currently pursuing other personal passions,” Wesley said. Fans will learn more about their situation in the coming weeks, according to the brand.
A snickers tweetalso owned by Mars, suggests they could be used in the chocolate bar campaign.
However, removing spokespeople from the spotlight would not be unusual for M&M’s. The characters have been around since the 1950s, but over the years M&M’s has relied on them more or less heavily in promotions.
But there is a risk in backing down, noted Geraldo Matos, associate professor of marketing at Roger Williams University. Customers may wonder if M&M’s has turned its back on the original plan of using inclusivity ideas to market its product. “They may have placed themselves right in the middle of upsetting 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 M&M’s fans – will all have forgotten what the controversy even was, and will be very welcoming.”
Plus, she added, this is a low-stakes situation. “It’s not a serious scandal,” she said. On the spectrum of trademark controversies, “it’s so inconsequential.” Because of all that, “it’s going to be a net positive.”