If M&M’s Super Bowl 'spokescandies' stunt is just about ads, then Tucker Carlson has won
M&M’s reenlisting its spokescandies back into the middle of the culture wars had better have a payoff rooted in action versus just ads, writes PR expert Andrew Graham.
One reality of doing business in 2023 is that even the most modest gestures in the direction of social justice open a brand up to criticism.
Case in point: Republican noisemakers like Tucker Carlson spent a lot of time and energy last year pretending to be mad about the characters in a candy company's ad campaign. I won’t pretend to fully comprehend the details here, but the backlash was something about how Carlson and others believed M&M’s parent company Mars made the female characters in its ad campaign less attractive to men, and I guess that meant (to them) that men have fewer rights now. Or something. They thought the candy was ugly.
The point of M&M’s campaign was to underscore the company’s commitment to inclusivity. I absolutely do not want to gloss over the notion that, as a brand marketing endeavor, it didn’t really do that in the first place. We’re about 10 years past the point at which a company can benefit from putting rainbows on their logos or making their mascots “more diverse.”
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. Paid media and creative are certainly elements of values-based campaigning, but they’re not the entirety of them. There is no more low-hanging fruit left to pick.
So, after making their dumb points about ugly candy last year, Carlson, et al. eventually moved on and pretended to be mad about other things that, in one way or another, acknowledge the progress society still must make towards equity and social justice. That's the nature of the characters that Carlson and his peers play on TV.
I had managed to mercifully forget about all of this until earlier this week when Mars wedged the faux controversy back into the news cycle by announcing an “indefinite pause of its “spokescandies,” which the company will replace with actress Maya Rudolph. Then, yesterday, the company announced it is changing the name of M&M’s to Ma&Ya’s. A Super Bowl ad spot is also forthcoming. I (sarcasm alert) can’t wait.
The optimist in me wants to believe that this is the beginning of a real campaign that centers on some tangible action. What can a candy company do to promote restorative justice while building up its brand? I don’t know exactly, but I do know that its parent company, Mars, isn’t powerful because M&M’s are good or because of the ad campaigns that sell them. Mars is powerful because it has vast financial resources and great political influence independent of the products it sells. So, it has some options.
The reason why you’d wedge that initial faux-outrage back into the news cycle now is to set the table for some sort of post-Super Bowl activity. And the reason why you’d enlist Rudolph – a Black celebrity who fundraised for Kamala Harris – is to continue to embrace the values expressed in the initial campaign, not to make nice with the Fox News crowd.
I can see some logic in doing that sort of thing now because Super Bowl commercials are newsworthy, so Mars could have a paid-to-owned/earned sequence up its sleeve. It’d bait the conservative press into more faux outrage, they’d take the cheese, and then the brand would have this gigantic platform to do something real, beyond an ad campaign. PR stunts are useful when they give a brand the standing to act and an audience, but without that second step, the actual action, they're counterproductive. Attention without action produces reputational debt.
Knowing how sensitive large brands are to criticism from right-wing media, I don't think that's most likely to be the strategy here. But I guess it could be.
If not to set the table for something more ambitious than a series of commercials, I don't see the point in putting the issue back into the news cycle when, earlier this week, it wasn’t there any longer to begin with. As it stands now, Carlson and the other professional trolls in his orbit get to go out there and say they canceled candy for being woke, and if this is all just some ad campaign, then they’d be exactly right.
Andrew Graham is founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a public relations firm.