It is Super Bowl ad season, a time when marketers work to create excitement and interest heading into the big game.
One of the brands that has received a lot of attention this year is M&Ms. The brand is apparently in the middle of an elaborate stunt designed to create interest and excitement.
It is a fun concept, but a highly debatable move.
Two weeks ago, M&Ms released a statement saying it was going to focus less on the M&M characters, in part because they had become polarizing after a recent redesign. Instead, Maya Rudolph would be their new spokesperson.
Mars took the M&Ms story to the media. The New York Times ran an article on the news, as did the Wall Street Journal and other outlets.
It now appears that the announcement was a hoax. M&Ms is releasing a series of videos showing Maya Rudolph making a hash of her role. She changed the name of the product and is proposing to launch strange flavors like clam.
Presumably, on the Super Bowl, the characters will take back control.
This marketing effort is certainly generating a lot of interest. People debated the move to step away from the M&M characters. Some said it was sad that life had become so polarized. Others criticized Mars and M&Ms for backing away from diversity and inclusion.
The brand is now having quite a lot of fun with things, generating interest and attention.
If the goal was to get people talking about M&Ms again, well, mission accomplished.
The issue, of course, is that Mars is getting all this attention because the brand released fake news. The company tricked powerful, credible media properties into running a false story.
Putting out misleading information, especially in a blatant bid to get publicity, is a dangerous move for companies. The first problem is that it erodes trust. In a time when trust is falling, actions like this just further erode it. Can we trust the next announcement from Mars? Probably not.
This doesn’t matter so much when dealing with the fate of some animated characters. But how about when Mars discusses the safety of Pedigree dog food? Do we trust that? Or the presence of allergens in its candy? Is that reliable?
The bigger problem is that stunts like this create bad feelings with media partners. Daniel Victor wrote the article in the New York Times about the move. How do you think he is feeling, knowing he was played by Mars PR people? How about Jennifer Calfas from the Wall Street Journal, who was also duped by Mars?
A few years back Volkswagon released a statement saying it was changing its name to Voltswagon. Media outlets ran the story, taking it as true. When the company revealed that it was just a gimmic, the reporters looked foolish. I spoke to one who was bitter and furious at VW.
So what is this? A charming, clever campaign that will generate publicity for M&Ms, or a bad strategy that will damage the credibility of Mars? It seems to me like it is both, a clever short-term promotion, but a move that has Mars joining a list of people and organizations that can’t be trusted, like Volkswagon, George Santos and Sam Bankman-Fried.
Getting people talking is always good, but doing it with false stories is a dangerous approach in a world where trust is hard to find.