Skittles and the Case of Trayvon Martin

On February 26, Trayvon Martin was shot walking home from buying Skittles and iced tea. The shooter and self-appointed leader of the community watch team, George Zimmerman, shot the 17 year old despite being told from police to refrain. Martin was discovered to be unarmed. Angered citizens took to social media platforms immediately to express outrage at Florida law (Zimmerman is so far off the hook due to a “self defense” clause), local authorities (for showing a lack of interest in pursuing justice for Martin’s family), and the overarching themes of racial profiling and the law, as well as race relations in America today.

Photos of social media users in hoodies (the piece of clothing that made Martin “suspicious” to Zimmerman) flooded Twitter. The #millionhoodiemarch was born and people protested in cities across the U.S. that such a thing could happen in America today. What emerged as an unlikely symbol for this movement? Skittles. The packet of candy that Martin was carrying at the time of his death became a symbol of his innocence. Protesters clutched bags of the rainbow-colored confection. Photos of “RIP” spelled out in Skittles pieces made the internet rounds. While Skittles by no means asked for such publicity, their silence on the topic has been deafening despite the communal conversation involving their brand.

As of March 23, Skittles’ tweets and Facebook posts (to a 21 million strong audience) have been brand and promotional related. Perhaps unbeknownst to Skittles is the new Facebook timeline’s feature that automatically includes periphereal convserations on their brand alongside in-house updates. Right next to invocations to “Taste the rainbow” appear a running list of user’s comments such as “Please Support this cause to prosecute George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. He went to the store to purchase a bag of YOUR CANDY. please help with our movement show your support. No response means no support,” or “Skittles should consider a generous donation to the family of Trayvon Martin with the increase in sales..” One user even posted this photo:

Should Skittles respond? Do they have an obligation to? My guess is that they’re avoiding mingling their happy-go-lucky brand with  involvement in a situation steeped in complicated layers of race and social justice. But in ignoring their user’s comments, they’re unable to get ownership over the convseration happening in regards to their brand. A simple “Our thoughts are with Trayvon Martin’s family at this time. Skittles will be opening a memorial fund in his name with all proceeds collected over a [insert timeframe here].” Something simple without delving into the specifics of the case would position Skittles as thoughtful and at least aware of the maelstrom swirling around their brand at the moment.

If they do responded in the near future, it will look like it was done out of pressure, not out of authentic care and interest. This case illustrates some simple PR rules. Just because your brand doesn’t want to engage doesn’t mean your users don’t and b.) proactive, rather than reactive statements make the difference between an informed, caring brand and one that would rather put its head in the sand irrespective of the conversation around them.