Skittles, Arizona Iced Tea Caught in No Man's Land in Trayvon Martin Case

After unwanted cameos, brands freeze up

There is such a thing as bad publicity. Just ask Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea, the two brands on the receiving end of massive amounts of unwanted attention for their cameo appearances in the death of Trayvon Martin. The African-American teen had just purchased those items at a Sanford, Fla., convenience store on Feb. 26 when he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain. The brands have since been drawn into a divisive, racially charged vortex. When protesters march with your product's packaging nailed to their signs and demand that you speak out about the situation—and flood Facebook and Twitter with allegations that you're profiting from the publicity (news coverage equaling free advertising)—you've got a colossal image problem. So, what's a brand to do? Skittles and Arizona each issued brief statements expressing their condolences to Martin's family, then saying it would be "inappropriate" for them to get further "involved" or comment at length. Here's the rub: The brands are already involved. Some commenters have already blasted the statements as lacking, the net result being even worse publicity for Skittles and Arizona. With all due respect to the brands, this isn't business as usual, and running out a few predictable lines vetted by the legal department won't cut it. What we have here is a failure to communicate—and it seems like genuine communication is exactly what the masses are clamoring for. Here's one example of the basic disconnect: The lead item on Skittles' Twitter feed for the past 12 hours reads, "Don't you hate when you can't find that portal to an alternate universe that you set down like TEN SECONDS AGO?" That kind of faux-hip mumbo-jumbo itself seems culled from some alternate universe where current news headlines ("Skittles' Trayvon Martin Publicity Nightmare," "Skittles' Facebook Bombarded By Trayvon Supporters") don't exist. This spotlight's not dimming anytime soon, and it's important for the brands to step up now. The circumstances are unprecedented—so, break precedent. Social media is supposed to be about engagement—so, engage. Not doing so in a more humane, forthright and expansive way suggests the brands don't care, and that erodes equity. What they choose to do is ultimately their call. Judging from the continued hostility aimed in their direction, I'd suggest they start by doing more.