Skittles and Its Publicity Problem

Skittles sales have increased in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, but at what cost?

It's a blessing and a curse for the rainbow candy. In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death last month, The New York Times reports on the conundrum Skittles faces — rising sales, while quickly becoming the face of a race-infused movement.

The sudden popularity of Skittles (the candy Martin was carrying at the time of his death) has made people wonder whether its parent company, Mars, is profiting from tragedy — and should donate to Martin's family. Said one student at Morehouse College, "I think we are at a dangerous position where we can make Wrigley richer."

And Skittles' social media presence certainly didn't help the fire die out. Both Skittles and AriZona Iced Tea asked their Facebook followers after the incident what they would do before "giving up" their last bag of Skittles or bottle of iced tea (the drink Martin was holding).

Others see the candy as a symbol of Martin's death, and are selling Skittles to raise awareness. One example: a Twin Cities businessman, Rashaun Collins, has included packs of Skittles when he ships his latest T-shirt in honor of Martin.

Brand managers agree that Wrigley and its conglomerate Mars are in a delicate position; should the company speak out on the tragedy, it will appear that they're capitalizing on it. And if they donate money to Martin's family, the opposition will likely say that it's not enough. At the moment, Mars has only released a very subdued statement on respecting the family's privacy, saying, "It would be 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." As Forbes notes, it's becoming harder and harder for brands to stay out of the public eye, and a time of tragedy only increases its momentum.

Skittles' parent company, Mars, says that it has training in case someone should die eating a product. But, as Lehigh University marketing professor Beth Gallant noted, "... I don't think anyone has been through training for something like this."

Skittles isn't the only food product to be swept up in heated controversy. Twinkies were caught up in the Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone's murder trial in 1978; and anyone who's uttered "drank the Kool-aid" may not know that the origins of the saying come from the Flavor-aid drink used in Jim Jones' cult deaths the same year.