Skittles joins food brands at center of tragedy

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by Candace Choi

NEW YORK (AP)—It could’ve been Starbursts, Twizzlers or Sour Patch Kids. But when Trayvon Martin was fatally shot, he happened to be carrying a bag of Skittles.

The 17-year-old’s death at the hands of a neighborhood watchman in February ignited nationwide protests and heated debate about racial profiling and “Stand Your Ground” laws.

YoungProtestor
YOUNG PROTESTER—Steven Johnson, 3, holds an enlarged banner of “Skittles” candy, as he joins Los Angeles community members at a “Justice for Trayvon Martin hoodie rally” last month. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

For Mars Inc., the privately held company that owns Skittles, the tragedy presents another, more surreal dimension. Protestors carried bags of the chewy fruit-flavored candy while marching for the arrest of shooter George Zimmerman. Mourners pinned the bright red wrappers to their hooded sweatshirts at memorial services.

On eBay, vendors sell $10 T-shirts with the words “Justice for Trayvon Martin” printed over a cartoon-like rainbow of pouring Skittles.

Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company—the unit of Mars that owns Skittles—issued only a brief statement offering condolences to Martin’s friends and family, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment further “as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain.”

Skittles isn’t the first popular food brand to find itself at the center of a major controversy. The terms “the Twinkie defense” and “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” became part of the vernacular decades ago in the wake of tragic events.

The cases show how millions of advertising and marketing dollars can be rendered powerless when a company’s product is swept into a big news story. Hostess Brands Inc., which owns Twinkies, says it does not have any archival information on how it handled the popularization of the term “the Twinkie defense.” The phrase was used derisively by the media during the trial of Dan White, who fatally shot San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. White’s lawyers cited his poor eating habits as a sign of his depressed state.

As for “don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” younger generations may not realize the phrase has its origins in the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, where Rev. Jim Jones led more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple to drink a grape flavored drink laced with cyanide. The powdered mix used to make the concoction was actually the lesser known Flavor Aid.

The best approach for companies is to maintain a low profile, says Katherine Sredl, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. That’s particularly true in the Martin case, where any action by Mars could be interpreted as insincere or opportunistic.

Fate can swing in the other direction too, of course. Companies can become the beneficiaries of unexpected positive press, usually when celebrities are spotted consuming their products without being paid for an endorsement.

Last winter, Skittles basked in exactly that type of exposure when NFL star Marshawn Lynch was shown scarfing down a bag of the candy on the sideline after a touchdown. Lynch, a running back for the Seattle Seahawks, explained it was a tradition he started with his mother in high school. Fans started throwing Skittles at Seahawks games.

In that scenario, Mars was quick to step forward and capitalize on the opportunity. The McLean, Va.-based company gave Lynch a free two-year supply as well as a custom-made Skittles dispenser for his locker.

Sredl believes the Martin case could help to reinforce the buoyant image Skittles convey. “Skittles have always symbolized youth and innocence. They’re so brightly colored and almost pure sugar,” Sredl says.

That’s why the candy became such a vivid detail in the Martin case. In the public imagination, it underscored that the teenager was “just a kid walking down the street eating Skittles,” Sredl says.

Perhaps more importantly, Skittles has become a part of the public discourse, she says. And that’s always good for a company.

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