The History of the M&M Characters

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January 22, 2019
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(The Channel Awesome logo and the title sequence play)

NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. I want to talk about the M&M characters.

(Cut to a clip of Beetlejuice)

Beetlejuice: ...Why?

NC: I'm glad you asked, audience represented by late '80s Michael Keaton movie. Because, surprisingly, not a lot of people do.

(A montage of clips of various M&M's commercials follows)

NC (vo): Oh, don't get me wrong: the M&M characters need no help getting noticed. M&M's candies have been around since the '40s, but if you mention the brand name today, it's almost impossible not to think of the funny, distinct and memorable characters that have been associated with them for over twenty years.

NC: Also, make no mistake, people do talk about them at certain times.

NC (vo): After their new Super Bowl commercial that runs every year; their theatrical promos played in several movie theaters; their Christmas ad that stayed the same for over twenty holiday seasons; you could even turn yourself into an M&M on their site for a while. These characters are as amazingly popular now as they were when they were first created.

NC: But that's what people don't talk about: how were they created? Who came up with the idea? And how have they been lasting for so long?

NC (vo): In doing research, I found there's actually not that many sites discussing where these icons came from. I couldn't even find videos on it. Plenty on the candy brand itself, but not the characters, at least that I could find.

NC: Well, you know what? There deserves to be.

NC (vo): I know these characters exist just to sell a product, but we've had...

(The poster for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory pops up)

NC (vo): ...whole movies based on that premise...

(The poster for The Lego Movie pops up)

NC (vo): ...and we got angry when they weren't nominated for Oscars!

(Cut back to the commercials)

NC (vo): Just because they're used to sell something doesn't mean they can't leave a funny, charming, memorable impact. We know the personalities of these timeless characters like we know (images of...) Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse, characters you had almost ten minutes at a time to get acquainted with, but with these guys, you had only thirty seconds. Thirty seconds to make a connection, and we still feel like we know these characters inside out. That's something that deserves to be explored.

NC: So, we're gonna look over how these characters came to be, who they are, and how they entertained kids and adults for so many years.

(An old-time ad for M&M's during World War II is displayed)

NC (vo): Let's start at the beginning. M&M's was created in the early '40s...

(Cut to a montage of black-and-white commercials for the product)

NC (vo): ...and like any brand, they utilized advertising. Though they went through several different strategies and spokespeople, they never had an official mascot that lasted for a long amount of time.

(A poster for Reese's Pieces featuring E.T. is displayed)

NC (vo): E.T. would have been perfect, you both have two letters in your names! DAMN FOOL!!!

(Back to the M&M's)

NC (vo): The closest thing they had to a long run was putting faces and limbs on the candies themselves...

(Cut to a shot of the Kool-Aid Man from the 80s)

NC (vo): ...something a lot of products have done over the years.

NC: Though no distinct personalities were formed, they did seem to focus on two.

(Clips of commercials showing these two are shown)

NC (vo): A red plain one and a yellow peanut one. Something about those two colors and those two shapes side by side seemed to be the most eye-pleasing.

(Cut to another ad, from the 90s, with multitudes of the candies in all shapes and colors)

NC (vo): In the mid-90s, though, sales weren't performing as they wanted. M&M's was not only becoming just another candy...

(Shots of knockoffs of the product are shown, including Piatsen's Big Ben and Hershey-Ets)

NC (vo): ...they were becoming one that was easily imitated.

NC: Something had to be done to make them stand out.

NC (vo): With a relatively small budget, they asked advertising firm (image of the logo for...) BBDO to breathe new life into them. But (image of...) creative director at the time, Susan Credle, knew they didn't have the ad spend of other big clients like Coke or Pepsi, so they had to think simple.

(The montage now focuses on the early days of the CGI-rendered red and yellow M&M figures of today)

NC (vo): She and her team came up with the idea of giving the M&M's personalities, even making them a little more adult so they wouldn't just be associated with kid stuff. Lucky enough, they had the talent of Blue Sky Studios to animate them...

(Cut to a shot of the Blue Sky logo with some of its characters (from Rio, Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who, etc.) surrounding it)

NC (vo): Yeah, that Blue Sky Studios! ...and the campaign began with different primetime celebrities interacting with the red and yellow M&M. The tone was more laid back, sophisticated. Sure, they didn't have to always be bouncing around to want one.

(A snippet of a commercial is shown, featuring early versions of the CGI-rendered red and yellow M&M's pushing a bowl of M&M's in front of Bebe Neuwirth)

Red: You want one?

Bebe: Surely, you jest. One bite, and all my composure's lost.

Yellow: We'll help you find it.

(Bebe takes a piece of the candy and eats it, yet is not affected)

Red: Well?

Bebe: I'm giddy. You didn't notice?

(The M&M's backs turned to her, she smiles at the camera, but they don't notice, and she reverts to her deadpan expression when they look back)

Red: Notice what? What is she talking about? (Yellow shrugs)

NC (vo): It was a totally different approach, and people seemed to like it.

NC: While the commercials were a nice change of pace, everything changed when this commercial premiered.

(A different commercial is shown, featuring updated versions of the red and yellow M&M's lounging in the living room of Steven Weber watching TV)

Steven Weber: Oh, look who we have here.

Red (Jon Lovitz): Just your friendly neighborhood M&M's. (Red slaps Yellow as he's saying this)

Weber: The same M&M's that come in the bag?

Yellow (John Goodman): Same ones.

Red: (sarcastically) The actor's catching on.

Weber: With rich milk chocolate on the inside?

Red: (irritated) Yes!

Weber: Oh, then I'm really glad you came by.

Yellow: Why's that?

Weber: Because I'm all out. Which one of you is peanut?

Red: Uh...he is. (points to Yellow and leans in towards the camera) I hear he's delicious. C'mon, buddy!

(Commercial ends with Yellow looking nervous and the slogan, "The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand.")

NC: Now, you might be thinking, "What's the big deal? That just seems like the other ads we saw". But there's a couple things to keep in mind.

(Cut back to the previous commercial)

NC (vo): One, the M&M's had a hundred percent defined personalities; Red was snarky, egotistical and kind of a backstabber; Yellow was laid-back, optimistic and usually clueless. This not only added more energy to the campaign, but also identities both kids and adults could find funny.

NC: Second, this is the first time they got celebrities to voice them.

NC (vo): That's Jon Lovitz as Red and John Goodman as Yellow...

(Cut to another commercial with Red and Yellow hanging in a black background)

NC (vo)...who would both be their voice actors for several more commercials. Like Disney did with their movies, adults could now enjoy listening to comedic talent they recognized, thus attach more interest in.

NC: Third, this is the definitive design that Red and Yellow would have from this day on.

(A black and white version of the commercial featuring Bebe Neuwirth is shown)

NC (vo): If you look at the originals in black and white, you almost won't be able to tell them apart...

(Cut back to black and white version of the Steven Weber commercial)

NC (vo): ...but with these, you definitely could.

(Coloring book sketches of Red and Yellow are shown)

NC (vo): If a kid was to look at a coloring book, he could easily tell which one to make red and which one to make yellow.

NC: And a lot of that's because they had the creative genius of the late Will Vinton. Yes.

(Shots of Will Vinton and his creations are shown)

NC (vo): Academy Award-winning Will Vinton. Founder of claymation, creator of The California Raisins, (Clips from The Adventures of Mark Twain are shown next, featuring a creature with a theater mask face) animator of that...disturbing as hell Mark Twain movie...

Huck Finn: What's your name?

Stranger: Satan.

NC (vo): The legend himself.

NC: Though he's best known for stop-motion, he found he would like trying out different art forms and discovered he was really good at computer animation.

(Back to the Steven Weber M&M's ad)

NC (vo): So he took his shot at this. And I guess if you really looked at them, you can see the resemblance to his other characters. It's no wonder the M&M's almost seemed cinematic, as it was brought to life by so much cinematic talent.

NC: From there, the campaign was set up.

(Different M&M's commercials from 1990s play out, mostly showing Red and Yellow interacting with celebrities)

NC (vo): Take these easily identifiable characters, put them with a celebrity, and just let them interact off each other. The personalities of the two were so polar opposite, you didn't need much else.

(One ad shows Yellow falling from the balcony and into Tia Carrere's hands)

Tia Carrere: (stroking Yellow) You're so sweet.

Yellow: Thank you. (chuckles and winks)

Red: (on the balcony) Give me a break.

(Fade to black. We hear the sound of kissing...and crunching. Fade back to Yellow joining Red, covered with lipstick...and missing a part of him)

Red: So, is it love?

Yellow: (dreamily) Yeah. Love hurts.

NC (vo): It was simple, it was funny, not too expensive, and people remembered it. In fact, the original idea was to have several commercials running at a time, with a different celebrity in each one. But again, costs were limited, so they would usually just pick one that had good comedic timing and used them in several continuing ads. People like Steven Weber, Dennis Miller, Tia Carrere, and my personal favorite, Patrick Warburton.

(Warburton is shown in a store, eating M&M's and looking at Red, Yellow and Orange doing the same)

Warburton: You're eating M&M's.

Red: Yeah. So are you.

Warburton: You don't eat your own kind. It's unnatural.

Red: Here. Give me that.

Yellow: Ooh, crispy.

(Red, Yellow and Orange change their bags so they would munch on M&M's of a different color)

Warburton: Give me the bags.

(Cut to Warburton walking out of the store, ending the ad)

Warburton: That's just disturbing.

NC: Over the years, the voices of M&M's would switch out, too.

NC (vo): Red, for example, was replaced by (photo of...) Billy West, and Yellow was replaced by J. K. Simmons. (Photo of him is shown) Yep, that J. K. Simmons, who, apparently, still voices him even to this day. But this was only the beginning for the candy-coated family. Many more were about to join the literal colorful cast.

NC: And much more good, clean wholesomeness was on the way!

(Cut to a commercial that shows the female character, Ms. Green, spinning on a pole like this is a strip club. She unzips herself, revealing her "naked" chocolate form. The applause is heard)

NC: (feeling uncomfortable) Yeah, it gets a little weird.

(We go to a commercial break. After we return, the footage focuses on the supporting cast of the commercials NC mentions throughout)

NC (vo): With Red and Yellow going over so well, it only made sense to expand the M&M family. In 1995, a contest was held for what would be the new M&M color. The results came in overwhelmingly blue, so it was decided they should give him a personality, too. Blue, voiced then by the late Phil Hartman, was the only other nut character, though it alternates from almond to peanut, and at the time had a plain version sidekick, too. He was the cool guy. Everything went his way, and Red and Yellow were always extremely jealous about how smooth he was.

NC: This also made him the most boring character.

(One of the 1996 ads shows Blue interacting with Steven Weber)

Weber: You get to dive into that big pool of milk chocolate...

Blue (Phil Hartman): No, no, no. You don't dive in anymore. Insurance, lawsuits, someone might hit their head. They make you waitin' now with a buddy.

Weber: Oh, bummer.

Blue: Well, one nut cracks a show.

NC (vo): It's kind of like writing Superman or Mickey Mouse. It's just tricky to write for someone who's supposed to be so perfect. There are certainly been examples of people doing it very cleverly, but Blue's personality was only one joke: he was more successful than Red or Yellow. This is one of the reasons you don't see him in many ads by himself. The laughs usually come from what Red and Yellow think of him.

(Another 1996 commercial features Red and Yellow (painted blue) impersonating Blue and his sidekick on a music clip shooting with B. B. King)

Director: They're not blue.

Yellow: Uh-oh.

(Cut to Blue and his sidekick bound and gagged)

Yellow: Uh, was Blue up there?

Red: (points at B. B. King) Mr. K ate 'em. One bite. Saw it with my own eyes.

NC (vo): That's also one of the reasons they dropped the plain sidekick. If they couldn't even write one of them that great, you can't really do two that great. Still, it was good to have an all-around cool guy, I suppose. Sort of a straight man to the strange antics.

NC: But it wouldn't catch on nearly as much as Green.

(Cut to a 2008 M&M's Premiums commercial showing Ms. Green lying in the grass with mint leaves falling on her)

Green (Cree Summer): (speaking sensually in voiceover) Oh. The chocolate experience you've been waiting for.

NC: (looking uneasy) Green makes me think things. (Beat) Things God doesn't want me to think.

NC (vo): Green, voiced by Cree Summer, who I don't think gave that character "take over the world" plot yet, was the first female M&M and was made to promote the dark chocolate, mint, or peanut butter brand. Her main thing was she was the sexy one. (Beat) Because DeviantArt is writing commercials now.

(Red, Yellow and Green are at Saturday Night Live, hosted by Dennis Miller)

Green: Well, my new movie is opening. And no, Dennis, I don't remove my shell.

Dennis: Of course not.

NC: So I'll be honest. At first, I didn't really like Green because, back then, whenever a girl entered...

(Acree from the 1984 Transformers TV show, Smurfette from The Smurfs and Lola Bunny from Space Jam are shown)

NC (vo): all-boys club, she was really forgettable or just the sexy one. Looking back, though, she's actually not as bad as I remember. First of all, she does have a personality. She's kind of a diva, has a glamourous confidence to her, but is also pretty cynical.

(Another 1990s commercial with Dennis Miller shows Red and Yellow posing for Green, looking muscular)

Green: I don't know which one is worse. (walks off) Thanks, guys, I needed that. (Red is panting, looking tired) Pathetic.

(Cut to the next ad with Green walking outside and hearing a wolf whistle)

Green: (angrily) Go buy a bag!

NC: Honestly, I'd argue she has more personality than Blue.

NC (vo): Secondly, a lot of her character is based around one big in-joke. In the 70s, an urban legend arose that green M&Ms make you horny. How, why, who: nobody explains, but... (A photo of hippies is shown) ...let's be honest, is that really the craziest thing you heard from the 70s?

NC: There was even an ad that almost addressed it.

(Another ad: Dennis Miller walks up to Green)

Dennis: Question, sugar.

Green: Yes, Dennis?

Dennis: Is it true what they say about the green ones?

Green: (gets angry and tackles Dennis) That is an ugly rumor! It's a lie! How did that thing get started?!

Dennis: Okay, so you're not lime.

Green: Lime? (calms down and chuckles) Where do you get your gossip?

NC (vo): Knowing that starting out actually makes a lot of this pretty clever.

NC: (smiling) And, honestly, a sexy M&M is just funny to me.

NC (vo): It's literally a circle. And they play it off that it's like the most erotic thing in the world. It actually gives some really good laughs, especially when you see how seriously some of the actors play it.

(Next commercial features parents sitting on a bed and looking at something in their son's room. The Thomas Newman score from American Beauty is heard)

Father: It's what boys do.

Mother: But he's my little boy.

Father: At his age, I'd be concerned if he wasn't interested. (It's revealed they are looking at the poster of Green)

NC (vo): It allowed for a lot of surprisingly risque jokes, and, to the character's credit, everyone stripped down at some point, usually on multiple occasions.

(The following ad is...the whole gang camping and preparing to swim, without their colorful clothing on)

Orange (Eric Kirchberger): Don't...eyes down. Nothing to see here.

Green: Correct once again.

NC (vo): She actually gets funnier the more I look back on her. The next one on the list is Orange.

(Next commercial shows Halle Berry sitting on a couch next to a really nervous Orange)

Halle Berry: So, you're that new crispy M&M's guy, huh? 

Orange: What, are you trying to get me killed?

NC: Orange is my favorite character.

NC (vo): Voiced by Eric Kirchberger, orange represents the crispy brand and the pretzel brand. His whole character is he's super paranoid. Where the others are good at smoothly avoiding being eaten, he's just freaked out by everything. He's freaked out about dying, he's freaked out about women, he's freaked out that the pretzels apparently gonna be shoved up his ass...

Pretzel: All right. (cracks fingers) Let's get this over with.

NC (vo): He just cracks me up. He's a total spaz. Every time I see him, I feel sorry for him, which just makes me laugh even more. I'm feeling sorry for an M&M.

(Cut to another 1990s ad; Orange is speaking to Diedrich Bader eating M&M's)

Orange: Could you just, for one second, put yourself in my place?

(Bader imagines a giant Orange eating mini versions of him from a bowl)

Bader: That's funny. (laughs and continues to eat as Orange whimpers in fear) There's your cousin. There's your first date.

Orange: Sheryl...

NC: It's kind of like those pigs...

(The logo for Famous Dave's is shown)

NC (vo): ...advertising barbecue. What if they became really aware of what they were doing and then just spiraled into a depressive episode? There's just something so bizarrely morbid about it that I can't help but crack up. He's definitely a keeper to have around.

Orange: (to Red and Yellow) I don't know why everyone wants to eat the crispy M&M's. I mean, I know I'm...

(Yellow, and then Red lick Orange, leaving him speechless)

NC: Next, came Brown. Or...Ms. Brown, because I work for her?

NC (vo): You know, the other had titles before their names. Unless you count...white M&M. (The photo of Eminem is shown with a "White M&M's" caption next to it) Voiced by Vanessa Williams and representing dark and plain chocolate, I almost feel like she's a response to any hate Green might have gotten in the past, 'cause she's the complete opposite. While Green is fun-loving, Brown is all business. While Green is a wisecracker, Brown tells no jokes at all. And while Green is being sexy, Brown is constantly pissed that everyone confuses her for being naked.

(The 2012 Super Bowl commercial is shown with Brown speaking to several women)

Brown: Only a fool would think I'd actually show up naked.

Red: (comes up) So it's that kind of party. Hit it! (takes clothes off and does the "cowboy" dance to LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It")

NC (vo): She's so serious, she should do a detailed commercial about her getting insurance from the Geico Gecko- THAT HAPPENED?!

(The 2014 ad shows Geico Gecko speaking to Brown)

Geico Gecko (Jake Wood): Um, Geico only insures humans.

(Cut to Brown walking out of the office and meeting a Geico camel)

Camel: Guess what day it is!

Brown: Save it, hump boy.

NC (vo): Despite being a stick in the mud, she does get some good laughs, particularly at the expense of the other M&Ms.

(The 2013 commercial shows Brown speaking to a woman)

Woman: Steer clear of Kristen. She'll devour you.

Brown: Really?

(Cut to Red walking out with Kristen, holding her by the hand)

Red: Yeah, thanks for introducing us.

Brown: Anything for a friend.

NC (vo): She's a nice bit to the cast.

NC: There's been other side characters over the years, too.

NC (vo): There was a chocolate bar which things would always go bad for, because he would melt in the sun...get it? "Melts in your mouth, not in your hand"? He was also voiced by Phil Hartman. There's a pretzel that's sometimes Orange's wingman, voiced by Maurice LaMarche, and there's a cube of caramel, voiced by David Cross, who's always geeky. They're gonna fix him, though, by putting him in an M&M to stop him being so square. I know how lame that is, but they got David Cross, (Ian Hawke from the Alvin and the Chimpunks movies is shown) the only likeable man in the Alvin and the Chimpunk movies. By God, I have to give a pass on this!

NC: The characters are so relatable that they don't even have to change the commercials much when advertising in other countries.

NC (vo): Because the animation is already done, all they have to do is change the people out and the language.

(Cut back to the 1990s Green ad with the wolf whistle)

Green: Go buy a bag!

(Next, we're shown the Hong Kong dub of this line. We are then shown the first Steven Weber ad again)

Steven: Because I'm all out. Which one of you is peanut?

Red: Uh...he is. (points to Yellow and leans in towards the camera) I hear he's delicious.

(Cut to the other version of this commercial, featuring the woman in another room interior)

Woman: Because, my little friend, I've just run out. (throws away the empty bag) Which one of you is peanuts?

Red: (different line reading) Uh...he is. I hear he's delicious.

NC: Their popularity is so big, they've worked with pretty much everyone.

NC (vo): Danny DeVito, Halle Berry, the X-Men, Shrek, Darth Vader...ooh, even Keith Apicary!

NC: (in a low, disappointed voice) He's betraying his Skittle boombox. (Apicary's character in Skittles commercials, Trale Lewous, is shown)

NC (vo): Susan Credle even admitted she knew it would be a hit, but to have an M&M store based on the characters opened in Las Vegas and still remained open for over 20 years was far beyond her expectations.

NC: And indeed, the lasting power of these characters probably went beyond anyone's expectations.

NC (vo): At the very least, you hope your campaign will sell more of a product. But to create iconic characters that are still beloved and watched repeatedly on TV and YouTube is something very rare. Commercials have gotten millions of views before online, (The screenshot of the YouTube search result shows the most watched M&M's videos) but there's so many compilations and so many people, both young and old, who love seeking them out. It's not just one commercial they like checking out, it's a ton of them. Not just because they're funny, but because the characters in them are so likeable.

NC: It's always expected they're gonna have...

NC (vo): ...a Super Bowl ad every year. It's always expected the same Christmas commercial will play every year.

NC: And honestly, they could go even further.

(The 2014 PSA about a phone ringing in a theater that was played before a movie is shown)

NC (vo): In the theatrical promo satirizing movie trailers, they say...

(A phone is heard ringing, and Red quits cutting the wires to save the other chained M&Ms)

Red: This is why we don't make movies.

NC: (surprised) Why don't you?! I would totally see that!

NC (vo): If Ernest, Willy Wonka, Uncle Drew and Lego could get their own successful movies, why not them? The characters are already set, they work great off each other...

NC: If the goddamn Geico Cavemen...

(The poster for the 2007 ABC show Cavemen is shown)

NC (vo): ...could get their own show...yeah, that's right, Google it...actually, don't...these guys could work great in a movie.

NC: Okay. So, it's a successful campaign with successful characters. Why is that a big deal?

NC (vo): We've seen other product mascots last a long time, even longer than that, in fact.

NC: Well, here's the thing. The M&M's mascot combined three things that I can't think any other product mascot combines.

NC (vo): One: They are some of the few commercial characters that have looked exactly the same for over 20 years.

(The picture that lists the evolution of the Trix Rabbit design is shown)

NC (vo): Lost of characters last for a while, but they usually change with the times. True, at first, they had to find their fitting, but within a year, they got it. And once they had that definitive look and personality, they kept it exactly the same for over two decades. That rarely happens.

NC: Two: They're surprisingly fleshed-out characters.

NC (vo): Even the best food mascots, like Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald; they're positive icons that sell their products, but they're not three-dimensional enough to write a movie or a show around. These characters are. Even though they're simple, they're still very human, and you identify with them very quickly.

NC: And three: They're some of the only commercial mascots that kids enjoy just as much as adults.

NC (vo): Lucky is great for children, but not gonna do much for adults. The Allstate guy gets a laugh out of grown-ups, but kids aren't really gonna be sucked in by him. No matter what age, though, you laugh just as hard at these characters. Enough that some celebrities, (The photo of J. K. Simmons is again shown) who don't really need to voice them out of necessity anymore, still come back to recreate their roles every time.

NC: Even though they were just created to sell a product, they still created characters that are kind of similar to ones like...

NC (vo): ...Animaniacs or Looney Tunes. In fact, a lot of M&M ads have been even funnier than Looney Tunes ads occasionally. For having only 30 seconds or less at a time, they created some clever, timeless, hilarious, and even at times kind of risque characters that people enjoy watching around the world. I'm not saying these are deep, complex character studies or anything, but they are funny, relatable and imaginative icons in a field where only one of those qualifications is needed. They're commercials, yeah, but they're ones that we rely on seeing every Christmas, every Super Bowl, every time we need a good laugh. All I'm saying is a lot went into making these characters, a lot still goes into making these characters, and it's worth showing how appreciative we still are for that effort.

(The montage closes on the 2010 "Power Walk" commercial, showing the main cast falling down in slow-motion)

NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to.

(He gets up and leaves to his left. The Channel Awesome logo is shown, followed by credits)

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