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Opinion: How brands manufacture outrage to uphold their image

The M&M remodel is a distraction from Mars’ child slavery lawsuit
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ARTHUR HAMDANI/THE VARSITY
ARTHUR HAMDANI/THE VARSITY

This January, my corner of the political internet exploded. After all, something staggering had occurred: the green and brown M&M mascots had been remodelled to wear different shoes. Mars, the company that owns M&Ms, announced, “We’re on a mission to create a world where everyone feels they belong using the power of fun! Join us in being for all funkind.”

The fight over the ridiculousness of this PR move broke out. Fox News host Tucker Carson raged about no longer being sexually attracted to the candy icons, generating a slew of reactions making fun of his response. Others called into question the details of the remodel and the way it slut-shamed the women-coded characters. Some others criticized how it didn’t attract consumers or get across the message that Mars claims to support. 

Among the numerous responses making fun of the remodel — including those from Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and countless social media users — a repeated theme cropped up: this is a hilarious, meaningless, non-news stunt. Mars seems to have cemented itself as an out-of-touch brand vying for public approval through moral posturing. Just like that, the company got all of our rage, all of our mockery, and all of our attention.

But while we kept our eyes trained on whether the orange M&M should represent anxiety, Mars spent 2021 as the target of a class action lawsuit for profiting off of child slavery in cocoa harvesting. Many large chocolate manufacturers, including Mars, were sued in the past year by Mali citizens who were enslaved as children on cocoa farms funded by the companies. They were kidnapped from their families and taken to Côte d’Ivoire, where they were surrounded by armed men and forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. 

Such cases have continued even though this issue has been a known problem in the cocoa industry for decades. The companies themselves even claimed that they’d commit to eradicating ‘the worst forms’ of abuse from their supply lines by 2005 — although they arbitrarily extended the deadline afterward. 

Last summer, the US Supreme Court dismissed the Mali citizens’ lawsuit by saying these international crimes did not happen on US soil. This is convenient — it sure is costly to go out and check whether the farms you’re financing use child slaves, especially if willful ignorance will mean driving down cocoa prices through farms that don’t have to pay their workers. It is also easy to participate in human rights offences in other countries when you cannot be legally prosecuted for it. The court confirmed the legitimacy of the child slavery allegations; Mars got away on a technicality, but they still profitted off of child slaves.

This story forces North American readers to face the circumstances to which our economic and legal structures subject colonized countries, getting off scot-free in the process. But smart marketers know that these problems feel far enough removed from our reality that they can be obfuscated. 

A seemingly braindead headline about the M&Ms no longer being sexy? Now that gets clicks. It’s so ridiculous that it’s memorable. And a right-winger losing it because he’s no longer attracted to a chocolate candy? What a fool! Aren’t these culture war commentators so silly? Mars fanned the discourse flame, responding to the scandal in a tweet in which the green M&M smugly asks, “Did my shoes really break the internet?”

Mind you, we should still have conversations about how we exploit women’s images for advertisements. However, in this case, this remodel is meant to be the first and last conversation you have about Mars. That way, the name of a company using child slavery is associated with its mascot scandal; the search results are populated with this discourse, burying the lawsuit. 

A company remodelling their mascots is, at worst, shallowly attempting to profiteer off of social justice talking points. A company profiting off of child slavery is evil. The remodel debacle requires little effort on the company’s part, but letting the child slavery controversy reach the public with no distractions would force Mars to take public action to right its practices. Which option is best for the company and its reputation is an easy choice for PR to make.

Corporate marketers are skilled at attention control, as can be seen from the history of company stunts that have used social issues to manufacture discourse and get press, like Gilette’s ad criticizing toxic masculinity and Nike’s ad about police brutality. Mars took the tactic to the level of covering up human rights abuses. 

Thankfully, as I’ve found while writing this article, some people are taking note of these connections and critiquing their capitalist roots. But considering the well of unethical corporate practices, this stunt won’t be the last one.

Beware of manufactured outrage and of contributing to the spread of curated advertising narratives. In a world where our attention is invaluable for public action and is therefore a prime target for companies, keep it where it matters. In this case, call out the corporations who are getting away with profiting off the enslavement of children and critique the mass North American consumption of the products of exploitation.

Anna Sokolova is a fourth-year English and environmental chemistry student at Victoria College. They are the Features Editor at The Strand.