LEXINGTON, KY: What was meant to simply be a silly social media post obviously parodying M&M’s mascot changes turned into a mini-crisis for A&W Restaurants this week after the joke went over the heads of some consumers and news outlets.
On Monday, M&M’s said it was taking an “indefinite pause” from its “spokescandies” and replacing the iconic cartoon mascots with comedian and actress Maya Rudolph in what has been confirmed as a Super Bowl stunt.
A message from M&M'S. pic.twitter.com/EMucEBTd9o— Ma&Ya’s (@mmschocolate) January 23, 2023
“We knew they would get a ton of press and their budget is a lot bigger than ours, so we wanted to see how we could get a little bit of attention around that same topic,” said Liz Bazner, A&W Restaurants’ senior director of marketing.
Bazner and digital manager Spencer Barrett quickly put their heads together trying to figure out how they could work A&W’s mascot Rooty the Great Root Bear into the conversation. They decided to pretend that the pantless Rooty would don jeans moving forward.
“Whenever we can work our mascot into something, it is an easy way to be playful,” said Bazner. “We never want to be mean spirited, so we decided to copy the style of the M&M’s announcement and put our own spin on it.”
A&W posted the announcement on its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages early Tuesday afternoon.
A message from A&W. pic.twitter.com/WGdF12TSyg— A&W Restaurants (@awrestaurants) January 24, 2023
Initial feedback to the post was mixed, but Bazner noted that it was immediately apparent that many people did not understand A&W was kidding.
“By dinner, it was clear a lot of the people who were commenting were not aware of the M&M’s post,” said Bazner. “It was a different demographic who was looking to be angry about something and we just happened to be the thing they stumbled upon that day.”
The tipping point, however, was when Fox Business took the post at face value and reported A&W’s move as fact.
Fox Business responded to this news by lamenting the "woke police cancel culture" https://t.co/qQVR7BLeiT pic.twitter.com/BlJ4ZVuJtA— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 25, 2023
“Fox Business reached out to me that evening and did not wait for my response; they did not understand it was a joke,” said Bazner. “That is when it took on a life of its own.”
At that point A&W tweeted, “Is now a good time to mention this is a joke?”
Fox Business did eventually update its coverage to note A&W’s move was a gag, but Bazner said the news outlet has not returned her calls.
“Our internal franchise system also did not have a positive response, initially,” said Bazner. “The post was taken down from our Facebook and Instagram pages 12 hours later because our operators were getting inundated with feedback through our email channels and it was not very positive.”
Bazner said she has also been surprised by how many people have been asking why A&W decided to put the bear in jeans. The answer: She and Barrett just thought jeans were “really American” and figured the choice, even as a joke, wouldn’t be controversial.
“Who is going to argue with jeans? Turns out, a lot of people,” said Bazner.
Additionally, some Twitter users have been accusing A&W of having the campaign planned and then cancelling it after getting negative comments.
“It would be expensive if we changed our mascot,” said Bazner. “We would have to update digital assets and merchandise. So, no, it was never part of a larger plan or campaign.”
The tone on Twitter is now much more positive about A&W’s tweet, which has become the brand’s most viral post to date with 486,000 engagements.
“I have never seen anything take on a life of its own like this in my 11 years here,” said Bazner. “It’s very meta. We posted something making fun of another brand and people got up in arms.”
As for M&M’s stunt, Bazner said she thinks the brand’s marketing team is very clever.
“It’s smart for them to keep reinventing themselves and I am excited to see what they end up with around the Super Bowl,” she said.