By Harry McCracken | Monday, March 2, 2009 at 8:04 am
Skittles, the venerable candy (which I tend to confuse with its Mars, Inc. stablemate Starburst Fruit Chews) is trying something hip and happening today: It’s turned its homepage over to a Twitter search feed for “skittles.” Obvious result: All of a sudden, Skittles is a hot topic on Twitter. Kind of. Actually, almost none of the conversation about the stuff has to do with any of the things that make Skittles Skittles: It’s just folks mentioning Skittles to get on the Skittles home page. Including saying disgusting, scary, and/or offensive things about Skittles.
Unlike GM’s famous backfire with its Chevy Tahoe user-generated commercial contest, the Skittles stunt, I suspect, was never about getting people to talk earnestly about the features and benefits of the product in question. I suspect that Mars knew that much of the chatter would be self-referential, strange, and obnoxious. The goal was to co-opt Twitter, period, even if it led to people theorizing that Skittles might be made in Chinese sweatshops from the blood of kittens. Call it social-media marketing nihilism.
(Actually, come to think of it, is it even possible to say positive things about Skittles beyond expressing a fondness for their taste? The damn things just don’t have much in the way of personality beyond being colorful, sweet, and vaguely fruit-flavored–by comparison, Peanut M&Ms or Three Musketeers are deep, profoundly Proustian foodstuffs. Which might be why Mars went the direction it did with this party trick: It’s hard to imagine many people talking about Skittles otherwise.)
I’m reminded of Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice campaign from January, which had the fast-food giant doling out free hamburgers to people who unfriended compatriots on Facebook. It got people talking about Burger King for sure, but it also involved gaming somebody else’s world to promote junk food. Some people called Facebook clueless when it quashed Burger King, but I kind of got the point.
I like Twitter. I like the fact that it’s an open, rambunctious, and honest reflection of what millions of people feel like talking about on any given day–so call me a humorless old fogy if you will, but today’s explosion of manufactured interest (aka unpaid product placement) for Skittles kind of ticks me off. I assume it’ll be brief, but I’d shed no tears if Mars came to regret the whole idea. Somehow, though, I think it would only do so if the campaign led to a sharp decline in Skittles sales–and maybe not even then. I’m guessing that other marketers will eyeball today’s prank jealously, and try to top it with even more over-the-top, obnoxious takeovers of social-media sites.
Me, I’ve bought no Skittles in this decade–actually, I don’t recall buying any in the 1990s, either–so a personal boycott wouldn’t have any effect on sales. The best I can do to protest is to buy and consume the fruit-flavored wares of a Skittles rival manufactured by someone other than Mars. Say, Jujubes. No–Chuckles. Definitely Chuckles.
Random side note as long as I’m talking about empty calories and social media: Slim Jim has its own social network that has very little to do with processed meat snacks, but does try to associate its product with having “absolutely no regard for proper conduct or state laws of any kind.” It also makes a funny about shaving the neighbor’s cat. Again, call me a boring old person if you will, but I’d love to hear Slim Jim manufacturer ConAgra reconcile this stuff with the blathering it does about corporate values and responsibility.
You gotta wonder how the company would feel about Slim Jim fans vandalizing its headquarters–a violation of both proper confuct and, I’d imagine, state law–and then impishly blaming it on their “spicy side.” And if ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin has any pets, I hope he keeps them inside.
But I’ll say this for Slim Jim’s experiment in marketing through social networking: Unlike Skittles, it created its own playground rather than taking over someone else’s…