NEW YORK – It could have been Starbursts, Twizzlers or Sour Patch Kids. But when Trayvon Martin was fatally shot, he happened to be carrying a bag of Skittles.
The 17-year-olds death at the hands of a neighborhood watchman in February ignited nationwide protests and heated debate about racial profiling and Stand Your Ground laws.
For Mars Inc., the privately held company that owns Skittles, the tragedy presents another, more surreal dimension. Protesters carried bags of the chewy fruit-flavored candy while marching for the arrest of shooter George Zimmerman. Mourners pinned the bright red wrappers to their hooded sweatshirts at memorial services.
On eBay, vendors sell $10 T-shirts with the words Justice for Trayvon Martin printed over a cartoon-like rainbow of pouring Skittles.
Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. – the unit of Mars that owns Skittles – issued only a brief statement offering condolences to Martins friends and family, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment further, as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain.
Skittles isnt the first popular food brand to find itself at the center of a major controversy. The terms the Twinkie defense and dont drink the Kool-Aid became part of the vernacular decades ago in the wake of tragic events. More recently, Doritos made headlines when it was reported that the corn chips were Saddam Husseins favorite snack.
The phrase Twinkie defense was used derisively by the media during the trial of Dan White, who fatally shot San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. Whites lawyers cited his poor eating habits as a sign of his depressed state.
As for dont drink the Kool-Aid, younger generations may not realize the phrase has its origins in the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, where Rev. Jim Jones led more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple to drink a grape drink laced with cyanide.
The powdered mix used to make the concoction was actually the lesser known Flavor Aid. Even so, executives at Kraft Foods Inc., which owns Kool-Aid, decided to let the matter go, rather than set the record straight.
It would be like spitting into the wind at this point – its just part of the national lexicon, says Bridget MacConnell, a Kraft spokeswoman. We all try to protect the value of our brands. But this one just kind of got away from us. I dont think there was any way to fight it.
In 2005, Doritos became fodder for late night comedians when it was reported that Saddam Hussein loved the chips. A U.S. military guard quoted in a GQ magazine story said the deposed Iraqi dictator originally obsessed over Cheetos and got grumpy whenever guards ran out of the finger-staining treats. Saddam forgot about Cheetos only after guards gave him Doritos one day.
Hed eat a family size bag of Doritos in 10 minutes, the guard said.
Although it didnt get as much attention, the article also noted Saddam preferred Raisin Bran Crunch for breakfast, telling a guard, No Froot Loops.
Fate can swing in the other direction too, of course. Companies can become the beneficiaries of unexpected positive press, usually when celebrities are spotted consuming their products without being paid for an endorsement.
Last winter, Skittles basked in exactly that type of exposure when NFL star Marshawn Lynch was shown scarfing down a bag of the candy on the sideline after a touchdown. Lynch, a running back for the Seattle Seahawks, explained it was a tradition he started with his mother in high school. Fans started throwing Skittles at Seahawks games.
In that scenario, Mars was quick to step forward and capitalize on the opportunity. The McLean, Va.-based company gave Lynch a free two-year supply as well as a custom-made Skittles dispenser for his locker.