Society is collapsing, and I am writing an article about the politics of M&M’s.

Sorry, am I coming on too strong?

Maybe – so let’s just get a few things out of the way first. The M&M’s spokescandies aren’t guilty of anything more than having tryhard backstories made by an old brand trying to stay relevant. At worst, their recent marketing changes are cringey.

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But that hasn’t stopped them from getting some disproportionately negative press from Tucker Carlson on Fox News. In his view, M&M’s have been melting down under the pressure to conform to new “woke” social norms. The pressure got so strong that Mars canceled the spokescandies, chose Maya Rudolph as a new spokesperson, and changed its name to Ma&Ya’s.

So what’s actually going on?

If you look below the surface, it’s a good old-fashioned moral panic. And that’s nothing new in big business. It’s been the bane of PR reps everywhere for time immemorial.

So let’s talk about how this controversy happened, how moral panics work, and what companies can do about them.

The Facts, or: why is M&M’s having a bad news cycle anyway?

Since the 1950s, Mars has been using “spokescandies” as mascots for M&M’s. They are anthropomorphic M&M candies, each with their own personalities. They’ve been around for so long that they’re just part of American culture, just like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s.

But in 2022, Mars decided that it was time to update their brand. The spokescandies were redesigned, with the green M&M’s signature go-go boots being replaced with sneakers. A similar transformation happened with the brown M&M as well, who used to wear stilettos.

Additionally, each spokescandy was given a unique backstory. Red is perfectionist and arrogant. Orange has undiagnosed generalized anxiety disorder. The newcomer Purple is big on self-acceptance. Green isn’t haunted by her past, and lives by the motto of “live and learn and move on.” Brown is in charge. Blue seems to be phoning it in for the paycheck. Yellow is just a big dope.

It’s all weirdly elaborate in a way that feels incredibly forced, as if they’re trying to be Pop-Tarts or Moon Pie and don’t understand why their strategies work.

But, hey, it’s corporate America. Embarrassing rebrands are par for the course, and most of them don’t get any attention at all because they’re just so damn boring. Still, the response to this particular rebrand was unusually brutal.

Most of the controversy is coming from Fox News

M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous. Until the moment when you wouldn’t want to have a drink with any one of them. That’s the goal. When you’re totally turned off, we’ve achieved equity. They’ve won.

Tucker Carlson, 2022

Carlson decided to attack the candies again in January 2023, also calling out the orange M&M for “becoming a poster boy for the mental-health crisis.” He described a purple peanut M&M, a newer character, as being an “obese and distinctively frumpy lesbian M&M.” 

Tucker Carlson on the subject of M&M’s

It’s hard to tell if Tucker Carlson is genuinely mad about Mars’ perceived wokeness or if larger powers at Fox News forcing him to cover this idiotic topic. But either way, it’s just an utterly bizarre reaction to Mars’ middling rebrand.

This has been going on for over a year. Carlson started feuding with M&M’s during the initial rebrand in 2022. Then he brought them up again in January 2023.

It’s not like this is just one odd man on TV ranting, Network-style, about nothing in particular. There’s a huge petition online right now with over 20,000 signatures from people who want to “keep the Green M&M sexy.” Can’t make this up!

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What’s going on might seem like a symptom of our politically polarized culture. And indeed, the accusation of M&M’s being “woke” – which I interpret as meaning, in this context, politically progressive in an insincere way – certainly is. But here’s the thing…

Moral panics are nothing new in business. Now, it’s M&M’s turn to feel the heat.

You might be relieved or horrified (or perhaps a little of both) to find out that this kind of weird controversy is not new. In fact, without doing any research, I could think of six off the top of my head, so let’s just cover those.

D&D and the Satanic Panic: In the 1980s, some claimed that Dungeons & Dragons was promoting satanic worship and leading to real-life violence. This led to a decline in the game’s popularity, but it has since rebounded.

Violent video games: In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a moral panic over the supposed effects of violent video games on children and young people, with some claiming that they were causing increased aggression and desensitization to violence. This debate continues to this day.

Comic books: In the 1950s, there was a moral panic over the content of comic books, with some claiming that they were a negative influence on young people and promoting crime and immorality. This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which censored comics for decades.

The Super Mario Galaxy controversy: In 2007, where a rumor spread that the character Mario of Super Mario Galaxy was gay. This rumor was false and it was not supported by any evidence.

This makes about as much sense as Tucker Carlson’s rants about M&M’s.

Spongebob being gay: In 2005, when an episode of the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants aired which showed the main characters participating in a “marriage” ceremony. This episode was criticized by some conservative groups who felt it was promoting homosexuality.

Teletubbies: In the late 1990s, there was a moral panic over the British children’s television show Teletubbies, with some claiming that it was promoting homosexuality and that the character Tinky Winky was gay. These claims were unfounded and the show continued to be popular with young viewers.

Note: I used ChatGPT to help me summarize these succinctly. Each one could be its own post.

The commonality in all of these moral panics? Every single one, with the possible exception of violent video games, is just completely unhinged. The violent video games controversy is tenuous at best.

And yet every single one of these brands, and the companies that own them, had to deal with these controversies. It doesn’t matter if they caused them. It doesn’t matter if the controversy has any factual basis. A response is required all the same.

Stoking the fires of the Culture War is how many media outlets make money, and brands have to be aware of this

The Fox News Channel is the most-viewed news channel in the US. On that network, Tucker Carlson Tonight has the second-highest viewership figures. The man has power, plain and simple.

TV networks make money through advertisements. They get you to watch ads by creating content that makes people want to sit down and watch. It’s well-established that any kind of content that provokes an emotional response is more likely to get viewed for a longer period of time, thus getting more ad impressions for the networks who need to make money.

Fox News, like most TV news networks, regardless of their political position, does this by stoking outrage. And if you think I’m a “whiny liberal” looking to blame Fox News, please note that Glenn Beck – one of Fox News’ most popular anchors in the 2010s – said this in his book, Addicted to Outrage.

Another funny thing about the news media – it has to move fast. That means churning out content of middling quality to create something readable or watchable but not necessarily useful.

Fox News picks a fight with M&M’s. CNN reacts to Fox News. Every other media outlet takes a side. The news, as a whole, quickly devolves into being a series of reactions to reactions to reactions. Media follows media like ants following scent trails to their death.

(And, yes, we do this too at Weird Marketing Tales, although we do our level best to impart something resembling wisdom along the way.)

Changing up an old brand is dangerous, even when necessary

Now if you’ve read all this, you might wonder – why would M&M’s even try to change up their brand? It seems dangerous. To answer that question, you need deodorant.

Old Spice was dying in the late 2000s. It was an old man’s brand and Procter & Gamble really needed a way to either revive it or axe it from their catalog.

Lucky for them, they made one of the most famous and successful commercials of all time and managed to make Old Spice cool for millennials.

Like other consumer staples, old food products have a brutally hard time staying relevant. And the amount of companies that have tried and failed to rebrand themselves is extraordinarily long.

Every company prays they will be Old Spice. But it’s much more likely that they’ll end up like New Coke instead.

In 1985, Coca-Cola replaced their original Coca-Cola recipe with New Coke in attempt to fight off Pepsi. Despite the new formula doing really well in the taste-testing process, the result was a complete disaster. It was so bad that even the Coca-Cola Company itself calls it “the most memorable marketing blunder ever.” Their crime, when you really get down to it, is that they changed something people like.

So here are your options if you run an old brand. Option one: don’t change, and die of irrelevance. Option two: change, and risk an enormous backlash.

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How M&M’s fared in their rebrand

M&M’s falls somewhere between Old Spice and New Coke. Unlike Old Spice, their rebrand came across as corny and unnecessary. But unlike New Coke, they didn’t ruin their core product. From a strategic standpoint, this rebrand is mid. It deserves side-eye, but not hate.

And look, I’m not holy here. I can’t really fault them for trying to personify the M&M’s the way they did. I probably would have tried something similar, and failed just as badly, if not worse. Nor can I blame them for stylistic updates. Brands have been pretending to be people online for over a decade now. I name-checked Moon Pie and Pop Tarts earlier because they have been put on a pedestal by the extremely online for doing a better version of the same thing M&M’s was trying to do.

Part of why it didn’t work for M&M’s is that the brand wasn’t fully committed to scrapping with critics online. Without a willingness to jump into the world of petty online beefs, they would have been better off quietly changing the M&M’s shoes and facial expressions while saying nothing much about it.

I don’t think this is an attempt to brainwash kids or consumers like what Carlson was saying. Truth is, it’s not thoughtful enough for that! The M&M’s rebrand just has a bad case of “how do you do, fellow kids?”

How M&M’s is trying to cope with the backlash


Look, if you’re this far into the post, you probably know what I’m about to say. Mars is neither doing a great job nor a terrible one dealing with the controversy.

It looks like they’re going for a Super Bowl PR stunt by hiring Maya Rudolph as a spokesperson and “retiring” the spokescandies and “changing” the candy’s name to MaYa’s.

It’s a creative approach and it might work. But the whole MaYa’s thing feels like a less funny version of IHOP changing its name to IHOb to promote the fact that it was selling burgers. It feels like Mars is trying to misdirect with star power in a way that feels painfully forced. It’s a bet so risky that even Mattress Mack would wince.

And yet – I hope it works. Because mediocre marketing doesn’t deserve the wailing and gnashing of teeth that M&M’s have been subjected to.

We’ll see what happens.

What should companies do when confronted with a moral panic?

Should you ever have the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a moral panic, there are some things you can do. Much of what will happen will be out of your control, but you will still have some options for gently steering your business’s reputation back on track. (M&M’s, listen up!)

1. Separate the real issues from the fake ones.

If you experience a bad news cycle, do some deep soul-searching. We live in an age of savvy consumers newly empowered to take on companies for their misdeeds. This is actually a very good thing.

But the very same tools that make it possible for consumers to cancel companies can be misused. Social media feuds can start up with no warning, and media personalities can pick fights for no reason.

So what do you do? Sit with the discomfort and determine whether you did something wrong. Figure out what’s a real problem and what’s a weird accusation made by a network trying to make money or a Twitter egg trying to get a “sick burn” at someone’s expense.

For M&M’s, the only real issue is that their characterization of the spokescandies came across as really insincere pandering to a younger generation they don’t understand.

2. Fix the real problems.

If you screwed up – however small – own it and fix it. Don’t make excuses. Just admit to your wrongs and do the right thing. Even if your wrongs are unrelated or blown out of proportion, people love a good redemption story.

Do this in a public manner. Though good deeds privately done are probably more righteous, in business, when it’s time to recover your reputation, it’s better to not fix things in the shadows. You’re not Mr. Darcy.

3. Double down on transparency and honesty.

Transparency and honesty are silver stakes against media vampires. Be as direct and honest as you can be with your audience, the media, and other stakeholders in your business. In any situation, this a good credo to live by. In the event of bad press, it’s a necessity.

4. Wait for unfounded bad press to blow over.

Just about every major brand will get heat it doesn’t deserve at some point. It’s one of the social problems that we’ve all agreed to live with in exchange for the free press. Without the media living on the largesse of the government or a wealthy financier, they have to make money. Sometimes, that means manufacturing outrage.

Some say people are stupid. I don’t believe this – at least not without qualifying the statement a bit.

People will ultimately realize when the media has overextended itself on a moral panic. If the media doesn’t drop the subject, they will look like fools. And even if they don’t have a come-to-Jesus moment, they’ll get bored and move on.

When media latches on to truly vapid stories, sometimes, the right thing to do is wait.

Final Thoughts

I am going to sleep until this idiotic M&M’s controversy is over.

Moral panics are a part of business, and they have been for a long time. This is nothing new, even though the use of the word “wokeness” lends a modern flavor to the whole ordeal. Companies must have strategies for handling moral panics when they arise, even if it’s not fair.

Until this blows over, consider what you would do if you were running Mars and you had to figure out what to do about M&M’s. It might come in handy if your own brand gets caught in a media slap fight.

And to Tucker Carlson, may I just say: please go touch grass.

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