The Skittles conundrum, when a crisis is bad and good

Skittles, sitting harmlessly there on convenience store shelves, selling to their fans. Then on a night that now transfixes a nation and motivates it anew to debate race and racism, Trayvon Martin bought a package of Skittles, making them a month later far more than a candy.

Like the hoodie popping up in legislatures, public parks and City Halls everywhere, the candy is now a symbol.

When you look at this picture of Skittles, the irony is apparent. All those colors, mixed into harmony and sweet enjoyment. Brown and blue, yellow and red, green and purple. A veritable rainbow coalition in Trayvon’s hand when George Zimmerman shot him to death.

Surely, Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, a division of Mars, Inc., has sales teams running and manufacturing lines increasing production. The company has to be quietly pleased with expanded and unexpected purchases of Skittles by the millions. Even its use as a positive fund-raising tool is unique. But did the company want to benefit from a killing?

How should the company react? Should it react? Is this a crisis or a windfall? Or both? Should the company play off of the rainbow colors to do something positive about race in America? Or should it lay low and count its money?

These are not easy questions. The guess here, as with most aspects of our American debate on racism, is that the company won’t want to get “burned” or anger “either side” in the debate over who was right and who was wrong. No one wants to be perceived as gaining market share as a result of Trayvon’s death. Playing it “safe” is in America’s corporate DNA.

But is going for a major public service effort not worth it? Could Mars partner with the National Urban League or the NAACP, or both, and dedicate a percentage of sales from Feb. 26 on that goes to a foundation studying and working to end racism?

Or could the company begin a series of investments in building on the national dialogue now underway, but sure to peter out eventually, especially if Zimmerman is charged and convicted in the killing. Like the White House beer conference, the OJ trial and Rodney King case, intense debate gives way to insufficient long-term growth and national change.

Or should it just lay low and watch Skittles power its bottom line?

As with all the issues in this case, there’s no single correct answer.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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