One of the fundamental problems of social media, if you’re running a company, is that some of your customers might have their own agendas — which they try to tether you to, then share with millions of people. So it was when Skittles found themselves used in a tangled metaphor tweeted by Donald Trump Jr., and how the brand reacted deserves credit.
For those blissfully away from the news cycle, Donald Trump Jr. posted the meme above about Syrian refugees, using an analogy with a bowl of Skittles. If three of the Skittles were poisoned, and you didn’t know which three, you wouldn’t take the risk of eating them, goes his argument. Many called it an attempt to draw political capital off the Chelsea bombing. It was also clearly an attempt to, yet again, incite the alt-right without acknowledging it. The idea of refugees as “poisoned” food dates back to Nazi Germany, where it was used to indoctrinate children, and after the death of Trayvon Martin, racists on the internet have made Skittles into a meme.
Skittles had a blunt response:
It’s notable because so many brands get this painfully wrong. In 2011, for example, Kenneth Cole made light of social unrest in Egypt, and then promptly began digging itself a deep, spacious hole as it tried to apologize. In Australia, Jenny Craig made the mistake of sponsoring shock jock Kyle Sandilands, and doubled down on the choice for awhile, before finally backing away. Even at least somewhat sincere attempts to help have gone wrong, like Bing’s attempt to raise donations for Japanese earthquake victims with retweets.
Needless to say, “crisis communications” from brands are low priority in any election, especially one as fraught as this one. But Skittles deserves kudos not just for rejecting the horrible meme, but also for explicitly acknowledging that’s all they can do, and that they don’t want to cash in, whether via those outraged over the meme or those who agree with it. It sets a solid precedent that more brands should take to heart; namely, there are time when shutting up is the best for #branding.