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The Mustard Skittle Is Cynical All the Way Down

The Mustard Skittle Is Cynical All the Way Down

A car stopped at a red light, next to a line of people that snaked around the block. The kid in the passenger seat rolled down the window and shouted the obvious question: “What’s this for?” He got a quick reply, if not a full explanation: “It’s the mustard Skittles, man!”

This week, to promote its new, limited-edition flavor—a collaboration with French’s mustard—Skittles turned candy into an event in downtown Washington, D.C. Hashtags, Instagram-ready backdrops, a cornhole-like game named Tang Toss, a general air of manufactured whimsy: It was all there. Some people walking by gazed upon the scene with expressions of curiosity and confusion and pity. Some, shrugging, joined the line.

I was one of the shrugger-joiners. (I happened upon the, uh, Mustard Mobile—a repurposed Volkswagen van—and my curiosity got the better of me.) As I waited, the queue grew behind me, looping around a wide city square, as onlookers took photos and videos and replies of “mustard Skittles!” occasionally punctuated the downtown din.

The event was a classic marketing stunt, right down to the branded fanny packs and frisbees that were handed out along with the condimented candies. But who was doing the advertising at the event—the energetic staffers clad in yellow T-shirts, or the people in the line? And … why? The Skittles are the latest in a long line of pseudo-snacks, including ranch-dressing-flavored ice cream, Velveeta-flavored martinis, and several French’s-specific fusions, beget by the truism that shock value, like sex, sells. They are foodstuffs that function as spectacles, and TikTok trends in waiting: In them, the abilities of the chemist collide with the demands of influencer culture. They are the edible effects of marketers’ ongoing efforts to turn paid media and earned media into the same thing. As foods, their flavor is, generally speaking, disgusting.

The most salient fact of the new Skittles, though, is not that they taste like mustard. It is that they are not intended, really, to be tasted at all. Through them, the Skittles brand has taken the allure of the “limited edition” product to an absurdist new extreme: The few packets that have been manufactured are nearly impossible for the average consumer to obtain. (If you don’t happen to live near D.C.—or near New York City or Atlanta, the other two places graced with a visit from a Mustard Mobile—your only other chance to snag a packet is to win one in an online sweepstakes.)

Behold, then, Schrödinger’s candy. The new Skittles are foods not meant to be eaten and products not meant to be sold. They are marketing gone purely postmodern: narrative, all the way down. Conceived in a conference room and concocted in a lab, their physical existence is almost antithetical to their true purpose: to become a debate on social-media feeds and radio call-in shows; to become an idea that goes viral; to give Skittles, the brand, a glossy coating of relevance. The candies may be new in flavor; in every other way, though, they’re banal. In their emptiness, they are emblems of a paradigm shift taking place in marketing—and in the relationship between the consumer and the consumed.

The earliest ads were practical affairs, most of them intensely earnest and nearly all of them implicitly rational. They sold their wares by making a case that their benefits were worth their costs. Over time, though, the allure of aspiration set in: Marketing became a matter not merely of satisfying consumers’ desires, but also of creating new ones. Mustard-flavored Skittles, strictly speaking, are engaged in neither type of effort. They’re not trying to sell themselves (indeed, there is nothing to buy), nor are they trying to inspire candy cravings among potential customers. Instead, they are doing something much more consonant with the age of social media: They are treating consumers not as potential customers, but instead as potential advertisers. Lines, when they’re long enough, are self-ratifying. When there are that many people waiting for something, the logical assumption goes, the thing in question must be worth the wait—even if the thing in question is a fun-size bag of mustard-flavored confections. The process is even truer online than it is in person. In digital spaces, interest begets interest. Trends beget trends. Soon, if Mars Inc. has its way, mustard Skittles will be everywhere, even though they are nowhere.

Standing in the Skittles line, not sure if I was in on the joke or the butt of it, I was reminded of Ada Louise Huxtable’s 1997 essay about the artificiality creeping into American civic spaces. The architecture critic considered, in particular, Las Vegas: a place, Huxtable argued, where “distinctions are no longer made or deemed necessary between the real and the false.” In a place that sells placelessness, the world’s wonders were—and still are—sanitized into spectacle. They become things to marvel at and talk about. They prioritize manufactured reality over the version that can be experienced with the senses: the version, that is to say, that is actually real.

A similar shift is taking place within our digital architectures as they become ever more unmoored from the facts of the physical environment. And the shift is, in turn, changing assumed transactions between irony and earnestness, between fandom and consumerism, between the world of ads and the world at large. Growing up, I was conditioned to treat advertising with a skepticism that verged on suspicion: Ads were manipulations, the idea went, and the savvy consumer viewed them as such. In the age of social media, though—the age that treats people as brands, and that cedes reality to those who spin it into the most compelling story—the old wariness is giving way as well. The definition of consumption is changing. (See, for example, the Barbie movie, which blurred, and then obliterated, the line between the satire of the consumer good and the advertising for it.)

In that context, the absurdity of the mustard-flavored Skittles makes perfect sense. The candies are cheery, crayon-hued adjuncts to the American culture-war debates: They are easy to talk about. They provoke visceral reactions. You might be wondering what the Skittles taste like, and: They taste like mustard. As with any Skittle, the texture hits before the flavor, as the shell gives way to the chew. You get a bit of horseradish, briny and sharp, followed by an extreme moment of yellow-mustard familiarity, followed by an explosion of cloying sweetness. The end effect, ironically, reminded me of relish.

That is not a compliment: I did not enjoy any aspect of my mustard-Skittles experience. But enjoyment is not the point. Nor even, really, is the experience itself. Snacking may be pleasurable and energizing. But it is, at core, a solitary experience. Eating something—tasting it, consuming it, using it as sustenance—is hard to do for the ’gram. Talking about snacks, though? Turning them into images and videos and stories and tags? That can earn likes. That can be monetized. That can serve every brand.

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