I never knew so many people wanted to bang the Green M&M.
The most cursed discourse of the past week was so frustratingly predictable
As certain as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, people in right-wing media will lose their minds whenever a company changes its logo, branding, packaging, or, well, just about anything. So when I saw that Mars, the company behind M&Ms (and a whole bunch of other things, ranging from food to pet care to chewing gum), decided to refresh the marketing behind its candy-covered chocolates, I knew it was only a matter of time before we’d all be subjected to conservative media-generated outrage.
I was right, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
But first, a quick overview.
Anthropomorphic M&Ms first debuted in a 1954 TV ad, but it wasn’t until 1995 that ad agency BBDO dreamed up the modern, personality-driven crew we’ve come to know and love. Red and Yellow started things off. Then came Blue (later in 1995) and Green (1997). In the years to follow, Orange (2010) and Brown (2012) were added to the mix.
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I say all of this because I think it’s important to really understand just how long these ads have been airing with relatively little change. The ads are fine, and I sincerely doubt there were many (if any) people clammoring for a refresh on the grounds that they weren’t “inclusive” or “progressive” or “modern.” That said, Mars did announce a refresh to the “spokescandies” last week.
Why shake things up? Well, if you believe the press release put out by Mars, it’s to to create “a more modern take on the looks of our beloved characters, as well as more nuanced personalities to underscore the importance of self-expression and power of community through storytelling.”
But that’s absolutely not it, and it’s honestly a bit frustrating to see the types of tantrums being thrown by the likes of Tucker Carlson1 and others in right-wing media as they eat up and regurgitate that explanation without question as a means to further their culture war goals. Mars came out with a new ad campaign for the same reason all brands introduce new ad campaigns: to make more money and increase sales. That’s it.
Having worked in the ad industry back in the early 2010s, I’ll let you in on a little secret: brands decide they want to shake things up, go to their agencies, and part of the agencies’ jobs is to reverse-engineer a story to go with whatever the change is. That’s the truth. It’s a safe bet that nobody at Mars was hemming and hawing over whether or not the characters were “modern” or “progressive” enough, and you’d honestly have to be a fool (or, as is the case with a lot of the right-wing outrage about this, to believe that your audience is made up of fools) to think that’s the case.
No, M&Ms didn’t “go woke,” a word that lacks any sort of coherent definition these days, as it is. The changes to the characters seem to be that… Blue and Green no longer have flesh-tone arms and legs (now their arms and legs are both white), and Green swapped out the go-go boots2 that it often wore with a pair of shoes resembling Adidas Stan Smiths3.
Stop saying that everything is “woke.”
Here’s a portion of the Mars press release:
The refreshed M&M’S brand will include a more modern take on the looks of our beloved characters, as well as more nuanced personalities to underscore the importance of self-expression and power of community through storytelling. Fans will also notice an added emphasis on the ampersand to more prominently demonstrate how the brand aims to bring people together. M&M’S branding will also reflect an updated tone of voice that is more inclusive, welcoming, and unifying, while remaining rooted in our signature jester wit and humor.
The new M&M’S global commitment is just one of many actions being taken across Mars to deliver on a world where society is inclusive. Our Full Potential Platform works to advance gender equality in our workplaces, in the marketplace, and in communities where we source raw materials. Within Mars, we’re committed to fostering an environment where our more than 130,000 Associates feel valued and respected, regardless of any visible or invisible differences. And with this commitment, M&M’s joins many other Mars brands working toward the world we want tomorrow like SHEBA Hope Coral Reef Restoration and MARS bar carbon neutral announcement in UK, Ireland, and Canada.
“More inclusive,” “welcoming,” “unifying,” “gender equality,” “fostering an environment where our … Associates feel valued and respected, regardless of any visible or invisible differences.”
Now, you might see that and go, “WOKE! WOKE! WOKE!” But before you do that, read this:
We live in a diverse world, with different ideas and different perspectives that come together to spark new ideas and make great things happen. That means reflecting the diversity of the world around us is critical to our company’s success, and we’re deeply committed to diversity and inclusion, including attracting, retaining and promoting diverse talent across our company.
The exchange of different ideas and viewpoints drives innovation and inspires powerful storytelling that resonates with audiences everywhere. Through targeted initiatives on screen and off, we ensure that our broad base of viewers, communities and employees feel heard, represented and celebrated.
“Diverse world,” “come together,” “reflecting the diversity of the world around us,” “deeply committed to diversity and inclusion,” “attracting, retaining and promoting diverse talent across our company.”
Want to know where that “woke” homage to “diversity and inclusion” came from? Fox News. Yes, Fox News. The same exact people who are melting down (pun intended) over “woke” M&Ms work for a company that regularly puts out a similar list of buzzwords to support its brand. This is just what brands do and say because no company is going to go out and argue against inclusivity in its advertising or hiring, even if it’s a place as vile as Fox News.
I’m sick of having to endure a new round of outrage from the right every few weeks.
And that’s why I’m writing this. This isn’t about M&Ms, but about the right-wing’s bad faith use of corporate decisions to throw culture war tantrums. That thing about backfilling a story to go along with an already-being-planned change in branding happens all the time. But for the sake of showing you just how deranged this has all been:
Do you think that when Mars (yes, the same Mars that owns M&Ms) decided to rebrand Uncle Ben’s as simply Ben’s Original rice in 2020, that some C-level executive was like, “Well, I would have loved to keep using this name and logo forever, but after seeing the Black Lives Matter protests, we sadly need to change it.”? No. The company was likely looking for a way to refresh its brand, which had grown stale since its debut in 1937. Being able to tie it to the Black Lives Matter was, I’m willing to guess, just a way to do something they’d already been meaning to do while getting some free media coverage out of it — and it worked. Maybe they did some research that showed that the old name and packaging was hurting sales, or maybe they did feel awkward about having some decidedly dated and arguably racist branding for some of their products, or maybe they just saw an opportunity to draw attention to a thoroughly unexciting product (rice! What’s there to say about rice? That it’s delicious and you should please buy more of it? To quote the late, great Mitch Hedberg, “Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.”)
Gigantic companies are not “woke;” they just want to make as much money for their owners/shareholders as humanly possible. When Hasbro created an umbrella brand for Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head to fall under, that was a business decision — not an attempt to de-gender the classic toys, but to create and sell additional “Potato Head” products (Potato Head kids, Potato Head pets, Potato Head everything).
When the estate of Dr. Seuss decided it was going to take six of the author’s lesser-known books out of print, that was a business decision (books go in and out of print all the time, and the truth is that those books probably weren’t selling especially well and weren’t worth making more copies of them, especially since they’d been making them for decades).
I wrote about this in a couple pieces for Media Matters last year (“No war but the culture war: Why right-wing media can’t stop finding things to be outraged about” and “Fox News’ Dr. Seuss obsession reveals the dishonest desperation of the right-wing war on ‘cancel culture.’”)
CBS News @CBSNewsM&M characters redesigned for a "more dynamic, progressive world," Mars announces https://t.co/jEIgTkgaCS
Someone whose Twitter bio reads “Libertarian. Research Associate. Recruitment Director @YaLiberty. #CapitalismIsConsent,” asked if I thought it was a “good thing” that Mars made this change, and why. I didn’t see the tweet until I was in the middle of writing this, but decided to respond:
Just seeing this now. A little bizarre that anyone would have a take on whether it is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing. It’s an ad campaign. The goal is to get attention, make money. All that ‘inclusive,’ etc.,’ stuff is just spin, and I really cannot believe how many people believe it. Remember when Planters ‘killed’ Mr. Peanut a couple years back ahead of the Super Bowl? This is the same exact thing. It’s really that simple.
You would think that someone who is super pro-capitalism would be in favor of companies doing what they can to make more money, but alas…
The M&Ms refresh is most likely just a way of setting up a Super Bowl ad. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Remember when Planters “killed” Mr. Peanut ahead of the Super Bowl in 2020? This is just like that. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw an M&Ms ad that made you think, “Wow, that’s a classic!”? For me, it’s the fake trailer ad that still runs during the previews of some movies. Know when that came out? Eight years ago!
Odds are that the M&Ms are doing something similar. Ad campaigns centered around “togetherness,” “inclusivity,” and whatnot have been around forever, and that certainly seems to be the angle M&Ms is going with its focus on the ampersand. That doesn’t make them “woke,” it makes them capitalists who know that the best way to market to all people is… to market to all people. It’s all very “Buy the world a Coke.”
If a brand changes its logo, that is capitalism, not “wokeness” (and “woke capitalism” just fundamentally does not exist, especially when you’re talking about companies like Mars facing on-again/off-again child slavery lawsuits). If a brand puts out a statement talking about a commitment to “diversity” and “inclusion,” that is capitalism, not “wokeness.” If a brand changes its profile picture into a rainbow for LGBTQ pride month, that is capitalism, not “wokeness.” Companies do these things to make more money, improve their image, and secure some earned media.
Had Mars not put out an announcement about its “update” to the characters (they have tweaked them over the years, often with changes that are extremely small, similar to this one), there’s zero chance that Tucker Carlson and others would even notice. Right-wing media personalities are absolutely desperate to find things to feign outrage over, and M&Ms is just the latest example.
Tucker Carlson seems to have originated an idea that Mars made either Brown or Green trans, which is… not anywhere in any of the materials Mars has put out or in quotes from the company’s marketing executives. This seems to be the result of (to give him the benefit of the doubt, which, I really should know better than to do that…) a misreading of something Adweek wrote about the “new” characters.
“Red, for instance, will be less bossy. Orange will acknowledge and embrace his anxiety. Green, who will come across as more confident, has traded in knee-high boots for casual sneakers, while Brown has transitioned from high stilettos to lower block heels and a fresh pair of glasses.”
It seems “Brown has transitioned from high stilettos to lower block heels” is being (intentionally or incidentally) read as the Brown M&M being trans since the word “transitioning” is in there, but that’s not at all in line with anything Mars said or even hinted at.
The story behind why Green wore go-go boots in the first place is actually kind of funny.
"We gave her white go-go boots because we couldn't figure out how to give her ankles," Susan Credle, who was BBDO’s creative director in 1995, said in a 2016 interview with Business Insider. “All the early drawings made Green look as though she had shapeless, tree trunk legs — not in-fitting with her seductress character. Finally the creative team hit on the idea of giving Green go-go boots to wear instead.”
The shift away from go-go boots and stilettos to sneakers and block heels almost certainly has more to do with the fact that go-go boots and stilettos simply aren’t as fashionable as they once were. These changes are less a “war on sexiness” (which, yes, is silly as we are talking about candy), and more a “war on things that don’t sell anymore.” Things like the Victoria’s Secret fashion show aren’t falling out of favor because of “wokeness,” but because they just don’t pay the bills as well as they used to. It’s capitalism, and if you’re genuinely angry bout any of this, that’s where your blame should lie.