Green was never meant to wear go-go boots. Instead of an anxious man, Orange was supposed to be a funny woman. Blue had to be cool and confident, since 54% of more than 10 million fans voted to make blue the new M&M’s color in 1995, edging out pink and purple.
All of this is according to Susan Credle and Steve Rutter, two former creative partners at BBDO New York who invented three M&M’s mascots in the ’90s—Blue, Green and Orange, following the original Red and Yellow—and established the foundation to introduce Brown and Purple in the decades that followed.
Although Credle, who currently serves as FCB’s global chair and global chief creative officer, and Rutter, the creative director at an in-house agency, are no longer involved with the Mars-owned brand, the two have more insight into what makes the spokescandies work than most. And they believe that as long as the characters are providing lighthearted laughter—even if that means winking at cancel culture—and continuing to come across as flawed beings with no shortage of foibles, they’re in capable hands.
“It’s good to stop and assess if the characters are outdated or offensive, but playing with it too much could also make them less interesting, less fun and less relatable,” Rutter told Adweek. “Part of why we think M&M’s took off like they did was we had a client who understood characters needed to be human.”
When first assigned to the M&M’s account in the mid-’90s, Credle wanted to get rid of the spokescandies, which then consisted of just Red and Yellow, though the brand has a long history of using various versions of the characters. Credle considered the iteration she and Rutter inherited insipid, childish and uninteresting.
“They were meh incarnate,” Rutter explained.
To Credle and Rutter’s relief, Mars told them that while they weren’t permitted to terminate the mascots, they were allowed to reimagine them and make room for more. Taking inspiration from popular comedic ensembles featured on TV shows such as Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends, the duo got to work planning new personalities for each candy color in the bag.
Due to logistics and budget restraints, Credle and Rutter couldn’t introduce the entire cast of characters all at once. Plus, they reasoned, it might be better to slowly roll out each mascot over time, giving the campaign a fresh burst of energy if things ever started to feel stale—like what sometimes happens in long-running sitcoms.
Most importantly, Mars agreed the spokescandies could be less-than-perfect creatures, rather than shameless corporate shills. They would be short, possess no magical powers and wear gloves at all times. The would deal with the same limitations we all deal with.
As Credle put it, she and Rutter were free to “create characters you’d want to write for.”
Green, gender and those boots
Much like now, the task of assigning gender to an M&M’s mascot, and figuring out how best to express that gender, has never been straightforward.
As mentioned, Credle and Rutter intended Orange to be a female comic. Think Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Ellen DeGeneres.
But in the late ’90s, M&M’s invented a crispy version of its popular candy and wanted a way to promote it. Research gathered from focus groups found people tended to eat more crispy M&M’s than the conventional variety because crispy M&M’s had a lighter, rice-based center. Credle and Rutter decided they had to change plans and make their next spokescandy—Orange, also known as Crispy—a character who was constantly terrified of being eaten.
Are you telling me if I wear cool, fashionable, interesting shoes, I’ve somehow done something bad for my sex, my gender?
Since they didn’t want to portray women as nervous and weak, they switched the mascot’s gender to evoke comics like Woody Allen, who cultivated neuroticism as part of his act.
Circumstances also played a role in the creation of Green.
Despite what some might think, a man did not create Green. Credle did, and she didn’t want the spokescandy to be like the boys.
“I wanted her to be a strong woman who is comfortable with her sexuality and empowered by it,” said Credle. “If you go back and look at the work, she’s always in control. She’s always finding the other characters ridiculous.”
In the ’80s, Credle explained, women who worked wore shoulderpads to look more like men. Women, in general, were expected to behave like men. Credle didn’t want this for Green.
So when M&M’s decided to ditch Green’s go-go boots in January 2022, Credle was initially upset. She considered the change conservative.
“Are you telling me if I wear cool, fashionable, interesting shoes, I’ve somehow done something bad for my sex, my gender?” she asked. “I thought it was a hit on her, which I didn’t like.”
Later, after she calmed down, Credle said she got mad for being upset about the whole thing to begin with.
Green wasn’t even supposed to wear boots. When developing the character, Credle and Rutter wanted Green to be in heels. Unfortunately, the CGI wasn’t advanced enough. All attempts made Green look like she had “garden hoses for legs,” said Credle.
Running short on time, Credle said, someone headed to a store on Fifth Avenue to buy a pair of white boots, which the graphic designers used as inspiration for Green’s footwear. Problem solved. As Credle remembers thinking back then, “Just put her in some boots so we don’t have to deal with that whole ankle-foot thing.”
A year ago, M&M’s redesigned its spokescandies once again. The brand announced plans to stop attaching prefixes to the characters’ names to focus more on their individual traits rather than their gender. Green, meanwhile, transitioned from knee-high boots to casual sneakers, while Brown traded in her high stilettos for lower block heels.
“We took a deep look at our characters, both inside and out, and have evolved their looks, personalities and backstories to be more representative of the dynamic and progressive world we live in,” Jane Hwang, global vp of M&M’s at Mars, told Adweek in January 2022.
Although the changes were subtle, voices on both ends of the political spectrum expressed discontent. “The M&M’s changes aren’t progressive. Give Green her boots back.” reads the title of an opinion piece published by The Washington Post. “M&Ms will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous,” said Fox News host Tucker Carlson during an episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Then, last month, the 80-year-old brand put an “indefinite pause” on its spokescandies due to their “polarizing” nature.
The announcement left many feeling perplexed. How could M&M’s give in?
The brand has since released new information indicating the “indefinite pause” announcement is part of a larger marketing effort designed to promote M&M’s upcoming Super Bowl commercial, created with BBDO New York.
While on break from their day jobs, it seems, Red and the gang are pursuing other career opportunities. Yellow, for instance, is auditioning to be the new mascot of sibling brand Snickers. Orange is curating meditative tracks on Spotify. Brown recently appeared on the financial network Cheddar News as a guest host.
“If you get fired, what do you do?” asked Credle, who believes the brand is adhering to the strategy of treating its mascots as real people aware of their precarious employment situation. “If that’s what they’re doing, then they’re behaving just like the characters should.”
When first hearing about the “indefinite pause” tweet, Rutter worried M&M’s had overreacted to the criticism. He now believes it’s about generating buzz.
“Even if there’s controversy, the very fact people are talking about this, that’s a win,” he said.
On that point, data suggests most Americans aren’t taking the updated M&M’s mascots too seriously. Brand sales and reputation have remained in good health despite the backlash. Indeed, recent survey results from decision intelligence company Morning Consult show M&M’s is the most liked Super Bowl advertiser among U.S. adults. It has a higher net favorability score than Doritos, Pringles and Planters.
On the notion that M&M’s is leaning into a heated public debate on gender and identity, Credle noted she doesn’t see a problem with that approach.
“If M&M’s is about providing fun, and if one of the things that’s not fun right now is cancel culture, what a beautiful brief,” she said, adding the brand is at its best when it treats people with intelligence. “Pick something that’s un-fun and fun it up.”