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Julianna Pijar / Gavel Media

Performative Activism in the M&M World

We are all familiar with the bright and colorful cast of the M&M world. Representing the colors of the rainbow, these cartoon candies were first introduced in 1954 and have appeared in a multitude of advertisements since. The characters showcase an assortment of personalities, from the anxious orange M&M to the bossy red M&M, and often offer a good laugh for their audiences. After years of customer familiarity, these candy mascots are now getting a brand new design. 

Last week, Mars Wrigley, producer of the M&M candy, announced a complete rebrand for their company. The business specifically altered the personalities and appearances of their characters, hoping to better represent their consumer market and promote inclusion. Most notably, the green M&M will swap her knee-high stilettos for a pair of modest sneakers. Mars emphasized this particular aspect of their redesign, stating that they wanted the green M&M to be known for much more than her boots. Other changes include the mascots’ lack of pronouns, encouraging people to focus less on cartoons’ gender identity and more for what they stand for. Embodying this progressive change, the M&M Twitter account also declared their “mission to create a world where everyone feels they belong.” 

While this change has seemingly good intentions, audiences have reacted in a variety of ways. Tucker Carlson, media commentator on Fox News, expressed his frustration with the brand’s redesign during a recent episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight. He passionately commented, “M&Ms will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous until you wouldn’t want to have a drink with any one of them.” Advocating for more sexual appeal from these cartoons, Carlson failed to represent the concerns of most audiences 

. Young consumers especially find problems in M&M’s movement for better inclusion. Although this generation champions for diversity in the companies they support, they are also critically aware of ingenuine causes. Unlike problematic brands, such as Aunt Jemima’s (now Pearl Milling Company), no one was criticizing the discrimination that prompted M&M’s rebrand. Many individuals now view this progressive move as a form of performative activism or an attempt to draw consumers’ attention rather than promote gender and sexual equality. Over recent years, many companies have utilized this marketing tactic to mirror this generation’s devotion to social justice. Pepsi particularly exemplified performative activism in their 2017 superbowl ad. Showcasing model Kendall Jenner at the front of a peaceful protest, the company hoped to mirror and profit from the Black Lives Matter movement at the time. Similar to the Pepsi commercial, M&M’s progressive rebrand comes across as superficial and insulting to those genuinely fighting against gender discrimination. 

Recent news on the Mars Wrigley business reveals further motives for the unprompted rebrand. After a group of eight young adults claimed they were used for slave labor on cocoa plantations, the candy company faced its second lawsuit involving child labor in just 4 years. Both cases centered around the allegation that Mars knowingly profited from the abuse of enslaved children, and misled the public to believe their production practices were more ethical. 

The first lawsuit was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2018, due to the failure to disclose the alleged use of child labor on the products’ labels. U.S. Circuit Judge A. William Tashima served on the case, and specifically wrote for the three-judge panel. In his response, Tashima elaborates, “In the absence of any affirmative misrepresentations by the manufacturer, we hold that the manufacturers do not have a duty to disclose the labor practices in question, even though they are reprehensible, because they are not physical defects that affect the central function of the chocolate products.” 

Other companies, including Nestlé and Hershey, are also being sued for their child labor practices on the Ivory Coast. This region of West Africa produces 45% of the world’s cocoa supply and has been linked to violations regarding human rights, low pay, and child labor. Children suffer some of the worst conditions on these farms, where the majority are forced to work 14 hours a day with little contact with their families. Utilizing machetes to cut cocoa bean pods, the young workers would then carry sacks of over 100 pounds back to the plantation. Aly Diabate, a formerly enslaved worker remarks on her experience. She explains, “Some of the bags were taller than me. It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.” Unlike its competitors, Mars has made a strategic plan to hide its involvement in this horrific practice. 

Whether the company genuinely believes in fair representation, the timing of M&M’s rebrand effectively attempts to bury this scandal. Instead of conversations on child labor, Twitter and other social media platforms are flooded with images and commentary on the green M&M. Consumers are distracted by this superficial attempt towards gender equality and cover this serious abuse with light-hearted controversy over a cartoon character’s footwear. Ultimately, the public must be aware of the malicious effects of performative activism. This strategy corrupts the genuine efforts of social advocates and connects reform to the unprincipled desires of a capitalist market. As Mars Wrigley awaits its day in court, the false goal of social inclusion will no longer protect this brand from criticism. Audiences will soon be more perceptive of superficial causes and understand the role of false activism within business. 

Despite this M&M controversy, there are businesses that genuinely support social progress. For example, Ben & Jerry’s holds strong ethical standards and champions for societal reform. In 1985, the ice cream company even created a foundation to support grassroots organizations across the country who were making a positive change in their communities. Patagonia is another example of a socially responsible company, as they give 1% of all sales to environmental organizations globally. Similar businesses that support progress through their platforms and donations supply hope for the future of activism. By supporting these ethical companies, consumers will understand the efforts of true reform and no longer tolerate actions like the shallow rebrand of M&M’s mascots.

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English major and double-minor in Sociology and Business Management. You can probably find me on a run around the res, getting coffee, or listening to Hozier.