Sunday, January 29, 2023

M&M’s trades ‘polarizing’ mascots for Maya Rudolph — but why?

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Candy-coated whiplash anyone? On Monday, the maker of M&M’s candies announced that it was sidelining its roster of cartoon mascots, just a year after giving them a makeover that made them “more inclusive” and made the female characters less sexy — a change that had provoked conservative critics.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson led the derision of the transformation of the “spokescandies,” devoting several segments of his show to complaints about the new “woke M&M’s.”

Parent company Mars on Monday released a statement on social media explaining that it was shelving the mascots entirely, given the controversy swirling around them. “In the last year, we’ve made some changes to our beloved spokescandies,” the brand wrote. “We weren’t sure if anyone would notice. And we definitely didn’t think it would break the Internet.” (Odd that the company suspected the change would go under the radar, seeing as how it made a splashy announcement and marketing push around it, detailing the new look and vibe of the anthropomorphic sweets that often star in commercials and packaging. But we digress.)

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And the company alluded to one of the central beefs that some conservative pundits had about the makeover: They didn’t like the change in footwear for the two female mascots. The characters formerly known as Ms. Green and Ms. Brown (they nixed the titles to de-emphasize gender) were allowed more comfortable shoes. Green swapped her high-heeled, go-go-style boots and strappy heels for “cool, laid-back sneakers,” and Brown (a powerful CEO type) got lower pumps to better stride around the C-suite.

“But now we get it,” the M&M’s Monday statement read. “Even a candy’s shoes can be polarizing. Which is the last thing M&M’s wanted, because we are all about bringing people together.” M&M’s also in September added its first new character in years, a music-loving candy named Purple who was “designed to represent acceptance and inclusivity,” per the brand. But her run might have been short-lived.

Now, in place of the lineup of candies, the brand will be repped by actress and comedian Maya Rudolph, whom the marketing wizards at the candy company called “a spokesperson America can agree on.”

Consensus? Good luck with that. But it’s hard not to read a wink and a nod into just about everyone involved in the candy faux-troversy. Even Carlson appears settled into his role as hypeman for the low-stakes melodrama. In a clip from his show earlier this month that went viral, he followed barbs about the M&M’s (speculating that the female ones were lesbians and calling Purple “plus-sized, obese”) with an asterisk about his dutiful handling of it: “So we’re going to cover that, of course, because that’s what we do.”

The substitution of the “Bridesmaids” star for the cartoon candies immediately had people wondering what was going on. Was this the peanut-centered capitulation to the anti-woke crowd that the brand (maybe) wants us to think? Or just another marketing stunt? After all, the announcement comes just weeks before the company will unveil its Super Bowl ad, a big-budget spot that in previous years has featured the cartoons.

“Rudolph’s ad with M&M’s is poised to be one of the conversation-starting moments of the Super Bowl,” reports Today, which seemed to have gotten an exclusive on the announcement. (Notable details from its reporting: Rudolph’s children are “so excited” for their mom; Rudolph’s title at the company will be “Chief of Fun.”)

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Linda Tuncay Zayer, a marketing professor at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago, says the major reboot the brand’s marketing team did last year probably wouldn’t be tossed aside so easily in the face of conservative carping. “I’m guessing that this is part of strategy that’s still rooted in that core brand,” she says.

And the selection of Rudolph — who emanates a kind of cool-aunt energy that she channeled in her here-to-slay depiction of Vice President Harris on “Saturday Night Live” — is one hint that M&M’s might not be abandoning its current marketing game plan. “She’s culturally relevant — she’s someone girls and women look up to,” Zayer says. “She’s wickedly funny and approachable and still really inclusive.”

Zayer notes that it’s common for companies to try to string out their Super Bowl ad buys by crafting a larger narrative around them — including courting controversy.

But the war on woke candy isn’t just peanuts, says Reece Peck, a media-culture professor and the author of “Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class.” He notes that conservative commentators often seize on small pop culture targets — a celebrity’s speech at the Oscars, maybe, or the “Happy Holidays” emblazoned on Starbucks’ cups — to help whip up viewers’ antagonism toward larger targets. “The master narrative that conservative media has amplified is that there is this educated elite and they are imposing their worldview on you,” he says. “And the most pedestrian stuff is often the most potent politically.”

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Carlson’s seeming awareness of the triviality of his topic is all part of the deal, Peck says, tracing the roots of his attitude to the network’s earliest days. “On one hand, viewers can congratulate themselves — they can say, ‘I’m above this,’ but on the other hand, they get pleasure from engaging in this topic of everyday life,” he says. “It allows the viewer to have their cake and eat it too.”

Still, some were taking the move at face value. Liberal watchdog Media Matters responded to the news by posting a montage of clips from various FOX personalities lacing into the candy’s evolution. “If you’re wondering how we got here …” the tweet read.

Other legacy brands have grappled with mascots in recent years. Pancake syrup and mix brand Aunt Jemima in 2021 rebranded as Pearl Milling Company after announcing that it was reckoning with the racist history of its mascot. Uncle Ben’s rice is now just Ben’s, a change prompted by a recognition of the Jim Crow-era stereotypes carried by the use of the term “uncle” to describe a Black man.

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