The confectionary wit of Mars, Inc.—as captured by its marquee candy, M&M’s—has long been the company’s ability to keep heat off its chocolate until it successfully lands. (Hence: Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.)
So it is, with the Beijing Winter Olympics set to begin Friday, that the food manufacturing giant has, in geopolitical terms, largely dodged criticism while continuing its play for the appetites of China, the world’s fastest-growing consumer economy.
Despite being the only U.S. company to have partnered directly with the Beijing Organizing Committee—for which its Snickers brand serves as the “official chocolate supplier”—Mars has avoided the kind of scorn that’s confronted other American businesses with less intimate ties to the host of this year’s Games.
Those predicates may explain, if somewhat paradoxically, why Mars has been made to sweat less than its American corporate brethren: the organizing committee’s sponsors tend to be much less searchable online than, say, the International Olympic Committee’s.
Mars did not respond to a request for comment.
Coca-Cola, Intel, Visa and Airbnb, which are among the premier corporate partners to the IOC, have endured persistent (if ultimately ineffective) pressure campaigns from activists and politicians. Last summer, senior executives for those four companies, as well as IOC sponsor Proctor & Gamble, were called before a bipartisan Congressional Committee for a hearing titled, “China, Genocide and the Olympics.” There, they were made to publicly address their moral obligations to take a stand against China’s human rights violations.
The harsh glare of political and media scrutiny has carried forth to this week’s Opening Ceremony, even though none of the 13 sponsors in the Olympic Partner Program have made any significant concessions. (Intel backed off and apologized to the Communist government in December, shortly after sending a letter to its suppliers that directed them not to source products from a Chinese region, where U.S. officials have said Muslim Uyghurs are exploited for forced labor.)
Meanwhile, the patronage of Mars, whose global headquarters in suburban Washington sits just 13 miles from the Capitol, has mostly flown under the radar. That has been particularly exasperating to Pema Doma, campaigns director for Students for a Free Tibet. Mars, Doma argues, cannot even fall back on the justification that IOC partners cite.
“They are not a company that is consistently sponsoring Olympic Games,” Doma said in a telephone interview. “They don’t need favorable recognition from the IOC, whereas other companies have expressed that if [they] dropped out of this sponsorship, it could impact future Olympics.”
(Mars has had past Olympic involvements, including as the lone worldwide food sponsor of the 1992 Games in Barcelona.)
Indeed, even within the short lineage of official Olympic chocolate suppliers, Mars has coasted. Ahead of the 2012 Summer Games, the London Organizing Committee was forced to respond to criticism about its paid partnership with Cadbury, owing to public concerns in Britain about increasing rates of childhood obesity. Japanese candy maker Meiji, a “gold partner” for Tokyo 2020, was later made to defend itself against charges of violating the local committee’s codes of conduct by the sourcing of its palm oil.
Last summer, Doma’s group thought it had made some headway outside Mars’ corporate offices in New Jersey, where protesters sought to deliver an open letter calling on the company to cancel its sponsorship because of China’s human rights record. The letter’s signatories included a Tibetan and Uyghur “survivor of [Chinese Communist Party] atrocities.”
Doma said that Students for a Free Tibet initially targeted Mars after noticing it was the only non-Chinese-state-owned company publicly listed as a sponsor of the Beijing Organizing Committee. A few months earlier, Mars had launched a social advocacy initiative, #HereToBeHeard, to “help shape a more inclusive business environment and create a world where all women can thrive.”
For Doma, Mars’ hashtag campaign seemed like an obvious jumping-off point.
“Maybe this company would like to hear from women who feel this world isn’t equitable because of occupation and genocide,” she said.
After initially being rebuffed, Doma recalled that Mars eventually sent two public relations staffers to receive the activists’ letter in the company parking lot, one of whom appeared to be visibly moved by the group’s pleadings. That staffer offered Doma her email address and assurances that the message was received, Doma says, but did not respond to multiple emails in the weeks that followed. (The staffer, a Mars senior manager, did not respond to emailed questions from Sportico.)
For Doma, the experience in Hackettstown, N.J., offered a lesson in the defense mechanism of PR slow play, something she says her group has learned from as it has since moved on to challenge other companies with Olympic ties. Mars, meanwhile, had kept the Beijing Games heat off entirely until two weeks ago, when the company’s latest social awareness campaign—for more inclusive representations of M&M’s—raised the eyebrows and tweeting fingers of one international human rights activist.
Notwithstanding that, and the lone grumblings of a Tennessee Congressional candidate, the candy shell remained perfectly intact.