Skittles and Etch-a-Sketch: When Brands Meet Politics

By Jared Bowen

April 2, 2012

BOSTON — Amid the fallout in the Trayvon Martin murder is a public relations conundrum for a product innocently linked to the Florida teen. It’s an unfortunate circumstance that’s plagued other brands from Kool-Aid to the Post Office.
When Martin was shot and killed in Florida he was carrying, as has now been widely reported, a bag of Skittles.
In rallies and memorials, Skittles are now used as a symbol, associated with the 17-year-old’s innocence and with the tragedy in general. For manufacturer Wrigley, it’s been a sensitive boon for the bottom line. The company has released a statement reading in part: “We are deeply saddened by the news of Trayvon Martin’s death … [we] feel it inappropriate to get involved or comment further as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain following this tragedy.”
It’s a sketchy line for the company. Or you could call it Etch-a-Sketchy — another product with ballooning sales thanks to recent Romney reverberations.

The original "Etch-a-Sketch" comment.

It’s perilous when products gain national exposure because of news stories. Think of Kool-Aid, the powdered drink mix forever linked with cult leader Jim Jones, even though Jones didn't use Kool-Aid in the cyanide brew that killed more than 900 of his followers. (He used a competing product, Flavor Aid.) Twinkies are forever linked to San Francisco politician Harvey Milk’s murder. The killer claimed that eating the cream-filled cakes made him do it — thereby creating the Twinkie Defense.

By example, then, it’s the handling of the Skittles brand in the next few days that may determine whether it remains just a popular candy or a treat with a sour aftertaste.
Marketing consultant Joan Schneider praised Skittles' handling of the situation: "Perhaps they should give a donation to an anti-violence group or something like that but then people might criticize them for trying to capitalize and get good press."
And Skittles, at least, doesn't have to shine up a tarnished image, unlike Twinkies and Kool-Aid. "When I heard for the irst time he had Skittles and iced tea I thought [it was] emblematic of how innocent he was," Schneider said. "I think that's why it's become such a big thing. It's a symbol for what's not right."



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