IBJNews

Skittles joins food brands that become part of tragedy

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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 February death at the hands of a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla., ignited nationwide protests and heated debate about racial profiling and "Stand Your Ground" laws.

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. More recently, Doritos made headlines when it was reported that the corn chips were Saddam Hussein's favorite snack.

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. Even so, executives at Kraft Foods Inc., which owns Kool-Aid, decided to let the matter go, rather than set the record straight.

"It would be like spitting into the wind at this point — it's just part of the national lexicon," says Bridget MacConnell, a Kraft spokeswoman. "We all try to protect the value of our brands. But this one just kind of got away from us. I don't think there was any way to fight it."

MacConnell added that Kool-Aid remains a popular drink and that the Jonestown tragedy has not overshadowed the brand.

In 2005, Doritos became fodder for late night comedians when it was reported that Saddam Hussein loved the chips. A U.S. military guard quoted in a GQ magazine story said the deposed Iraqi dictator originally obsessed over Cheetos and got "grumpy" whenever guards ran out of the finger-staining treats. Saddam forgot about Cheetos only after guards gave him Doritos as a substitute one day.

"He'd eat a family size bag of Doritos in 10 minutes," the guard said.

A spokesman for PepsiCo Inc., which owns Frito-Lay, says the matter was a "non-issue" for the company.

Although it didn't get as much attention, the article also noted Saddam preferred Raisin Bran Crunch for breakfast, telling a guard, "No Froot Loops."

As difficult as it may be for companies to weather controversy, the uncomfortable attention doesn't spell the end of a product. Hostess and Kraft say they don't have information on whether the "Twinkie" and "Kool-Aid" catch-phrases had an impact on sales. But both brands clearly survived.

Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company declined to say whether the Martin case has had an impact on Skittles sales. Even so, it is one of the most popular candies in the U.S. Sales grew 7 percent over the past year, to $213.8 million, according to SymphonyIRI, a Chicago-based market research firm that tracks sales at supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Walmart.

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.

Despite becoming ensnared in the Martin case a few months later, Mars may ultimately benefit from the tragedy, says Sredl, the marketing professor. The many people who see Martin as an innocent victim might buy the candy in solidarity or an act of protest, she says.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. I still don't understand how the FBI had any right whatsoever to investigate this elderly collector. Before the Antiquities Act it was completely legal to buy, trade or collect Native American artifacts. I used to see arrow heads, axes, bowls, corn grinders at antique shops and flea markets for sale and I bought them myself. But that was in the late 60's and early 70's. And I now know that people used to steal items from sites and sell them. I understand that is illegal. But we used to find arrow heads and even a corn grinder in our back yard when I was a child. And I still have those items today in my small collection.

  2. I lived in California and they had many of the things noted in the proposed suggestions from the "Blue Ribbon Panel". California is near financial collapse now. Let's not turn the great state of Indiana into a third world dump like California.

  3. The temporary closure of BR Avenue will get a lot of attention. But, one thing reported by the IndyStar really stands out to me, and is extraordinarily depressing: “Police also have agreed to crack down on noise violations, traffic violations and public intoxication.” In other words, the police have generously agreed to do their jobs (temporarily, at least), instead of just standing around waiting for someone to call 911. When is someone in this department going to get off their fat arse (looking at you, Chief), get their minds out of 1975-era policing and into 2014, and have his department engage in pro-active work instead of sitting around waiting for someone to be shot? Why in the hell does it take 7 people getting shot in one night in one of the city’s biggest tourist destinations, to convince the police (reluctantly, it would appear) that they actually need to do their f’n jobs? When is the Chief going to realize that there’s a huge, direct, proven correlation between enforcing the law (yes, all laws, especially those affecting quality of life) and preventing larger crimes from occurring? Is it racial BS? Is that what this extraordinary reluctance is all about? Is the department and the city terrified that if they do their jobs, they might offend someone? Whom, exactly? Will the victims of violence, murder, assault, rape, robbery, and theft be offended? Will the citizens who have to tolerate their deteriorating quality of life be offended? Will the businesses who see their customers flee be offended? Or, is it simple ignorance (maybe the Chief hasn’t heard about NYC’s success in fighting crime - it’s only the biggest g*&#am city in the country, after all)? Either way, Chief, if you don’t want to do your job, then step down. Let someone who actually wants the job take it.

  4. I thought Indiana had all the funding it needed for everything. That's why the state lottery and casino gambling were allowed, as the new tax revenue would take care of everything the state wanted to do.The recommendations sound like they came from California. Better think about that. What is the financial condition of that state?

  5. I was a fan of WIBC in the morning, Steve was the only WIBC host that I listened too, he gave the news with so much flare that I enjoyed listening to him on my way to work. Katz is no Steve. Sadly, I will not be listening to WIBC anymore.

ADVERTISEMENT