“Skittles are candy. Refugees are people.”

Imagine this scenario: you’re managing the social media accounts for your brand and see a Twitter notification from a presidential candidate’s son. The tweet uses your product as a metaphor for the Syrian refugee crisis, in what is an arguably reductive and distasteful context. What would you do?

This was the dilemma facing Skittles on September 19, when Donald Trump Jr. tweeted an image of the beloved rainbow candy behind the text: “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

Within hours, Denise Young, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Skittles’ parent company Wrigley Americas, responded, saying: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectfully refrain from further commentary as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

While the media applauded the brand’s terse statement, an important question remains to be considered: was it appropriate for the candy company to send an arguably partisan message out on the airwaves during the most contentious presidential election in recent history?

Let’s take a look at the factors every brand should consider when thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight.


The Politics of Responding

However Skittles was made aware of the Tweet, it’s likely there were several parties involved in the decision to respond to Donald Trump Jr. before the brand stepped into the fray.

On one hand, when your product is a household name, it’s virtually impossible to police — let alone publicly endorse or take issue with — every use of your brand name on social media. Feasibility aside, is it really appropriate for a candy distributor to express partisan opinions based on one public reference to their product? Plus, it’s likely many of Skittles’ consumers are voting for Donald Trump and share his son’s sentiments about refugees, no matter how offensive they may seem to some.

On the other hand, Donald Trump Jr.’s metaphor was in poor taste, reducing a complex humanitarian issue to a bowl of candy. There is undoubtedly another subset of Skittles consumers that are voting against Donald Trump as a direct result of his views on immigration.

So how did Skittles make the final call?

The Social Media Tide (Formerly Known as Public Opinion)

During any crisis or controversy, the tide of public opinion can be efficiently tracked on social media. If the groundswell of acceptance or rejection is there, you might actually save your brand the trouble of offering a public statement by letting the conversation unfold organically in a direction that your company finds favorable. Official statements are often best saved for emergencies in which your brand is directly attacked, falsely accused, or required to apologize.

In this case, social media was clearly enraged by Trump Jr.’s tweet. While Skittles could probably have stayed out of the conversation without attracting negative attention, they chose to publicly agree with a majority of the internet by declaring that they did not endorse the use of their brand’s name in this inappropriate analogy.

Is the Situation Objective or Subjective?

In this instance, Skittles made the right move. Not only was public opinion in their favor, but the Skittles as Syrian refugees analogy was objectively erroneous. As a study from the libertarian think tank CATO Institute finds, the risk to an American of being killed by a refugee in a terror attack is 1 in 3.64 billion. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump explains what that probability actually looks like if we extend Donald Trump Jr.’s Skittles metaphor:

“If there is one poisoned Skittle in 3.64 billion, that means I could extract quite a few handfuls before I was likely to pick out a poisoned one. Specifically, about 68.7 million handfuls. Let’s say it takes me one minute to grab a handful and eat them. I would hit a poisoned Skittle, on average, every 130 years.”

We don’t know whether Skittles staffers took the time to fact-check the probability of Donald Trump Jr.’s analogy or simply acted on instinct. Regardless, they deserve kudos for speaking out in a political media landscape riddled with mines. Now if only Twitter cared as much about living, breathing, Syrian refugees as they do about a hypothetical bowl of candy…

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer social media management services to build a vibrant audience for your brand across all media channels. Learn more about social media and PR here.

Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

More posts by Grace Stearns