41. The Red (M&M) Scare

From the mid 1970s to the mid '80s, red M&M's disappeared. American consumers had become worried about the safety of red food coloring after some questionable Russian studies prompted the FDA to look into whether one particular dye might be causing cancer in rats. But years later, the red M&M made a triumphant return, thanks in part to a college kid in Tennessee and an inside joke that took on a life of its own.

 

Produced by Sarah Wyman, with Charlie Herman and Julia Press.

Transcript

Note: This transcript may contain errors.

CHARLIE HERMAN: Hey, Sarah Wyman.

SARAH WYMAN: Hey!

CH: So what have we got today?

SW: So I'm going to tell you the real story behind the red scare of the 1970s. And I'm not talking about the Cold War, but a different red scare I'm sure you remember from when you were a kid.

CH: Are you calling me old?

SW: Charlie, I would never. You are experienced.

CH: Oh, okay, experienced. I'll take that.

SW: But, okay, so last year on our show we did a customer service segment about Sour Patch Kids, and, you know, why they're shaped like children.

CH: Right. Super weird, but anyway…

SW: Episode 36! Check it out if you haven't already! But anyway, while trying to answer that question, I met a guy named Jason Liebig, who you may remember as the Indiana Jones of candy…

CH:Duh duh duh duuuuhhh…Right, he's like a candy collector, historian dude.

SW: Yeah, and I really wanted the two of you to meet, so I arranged for all of us to hang out together in our studio…

JASON LIEBIG: Ooh, hello. Okay, I'm not used to this [crosstalk]

CH: Oh yeah, he and I hit it off …

CH: We're professional here.

JL: So Shirley Booth was the voice of Mrs. Claus…

SW: Almost immediately you two took off on this great nostalgia trip of the '70s and '80s.

CH: Oh my gosh, our conversation about Land of the Lost—let's not go there!

SW: And all the playground snacks that could take a kid out in the '70s!

CH: Pop rocks.

JL: I knew exactly what you were going to say.

CH: Pop rocks and Coca Cola [crosstalk] and if you drank them and Mikey who ate Life Cereal died because he ate pop rocks and a Coke at the same time…

JL: It's true… Yeah. I mean it's not true, but yes…

CH: You remember that, right?

JL: Of course! Yes! Amazing story, the kid ate some pop rocks, then drank Coca Cola, the carbonation expanded his stomach and exploded his entire abdominal…

CH: Not just any kid! Mikey!

JL: Mikey. He likes it!

CH: He likes it!

JL: From the Life Cereal commercials. It was like tying all these amazing iconic brands together into one physiological moment of doom.

CH: I mean, you know how kids are… so-and-so said that their big brother's best friend heard from their aunt something about Mikey and Pop Rocks and there you go, the story sticks.

SW: I know exactly what you mean.

CH: Remember, no internet, no google. Tough times.

SW: When I was in elementary school, the story was that Twinkie fillings were made out of ping pong balls.

CH: That's—I don't think I've heard… that's ridiculous.

SW: (laughs) But while there's not a lot of evidence to back that theory up, or the idea that Mikey ate Pop Rocks and exploded—

CH: He's fine.

SW: Jason told us about one playground rumor that did have some truth to it. And it's one a lot of people remember: in the 1970s, red M&Ms were pulled off the market because the FDA was worried red food dye might be giving people cancer. For the record, red M&M's… safe to eat. But still…

JL: The M&Ms thing was a far more real story. Because it actually happened…

CH: So because they were pulled from the market, it actually gave credence to the belief that it was a problem.

JL: Oh, yes. It absolutely gave credence to this idea. And in my young head, that was the story, that red M&Ms caused cancer in people and that's why they pulled them.

CH: From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don't. I'm Charlie Herman.

In 1976, Mars, the maker of M&Ms pulled red M&Ms from the market. Not because the candy was proven to cause cancer… but because people were afraid that it might.

It all started with a series of flawed experiments from the Soviet Union — studies which ignited a red, food-coloring scare in America, that made its way all the way to Congress and the Food and Drug Administration.

But after many, many years, the red M&M's returned and they're in packs today. And for that, you might be able to thank a college kid in Tennessee and his inside joke that took on a life of its own.

Stay with us.

ACT I

CH: Sarah, where were we?

SW: The early 1970s.

CH: I remember pretty well.

SW: Everyone was freaking out about a type of food coloring called red no. 2. It was in soft drinks, candy, cosmetics, fish and meat products… it was everywhere. About $10 billion worth of food products in the United States used the dye. And the FDA was investigating whether or not it could be causing cancer and birth defects.

NEWSREEL: Red Dye No. 2 under attack as a threat to reproduction.

SW: The newspaper headlines at the time were objectively terrifying.

NEWSREEL: Red Dye is called a peril to births.
NEWSREEL: Nader Group says food dye is dangerous.
NEWSREEL: Consumer groups ask ban of toxic Red Dye No. 2.

CH: Wait, red dye no. 2. I do remember something about it being connected to cancer. Does it cause cancer?

SW: The FDA spent years trying to figure that out. And what set them down this path of studying this issue and trying to respond to growing fears among American consumers, it all started in, of all places, the Soviet Union.

CH: The Reds! Communists! Now it's making sense!

SW: Between 1968 and 1970, scientists in the Soviet Union published three studies researching the safety of amaranth, aka red dye no. 2. All the studies were done on rats, and the first one said amaranth caused intestinal tumors. The second one said it was, and I'm quoting here, "a carcinogen of medium strength." And then the third one said it was toxic to the gonads and possibly to embryos.

CH: I mean that sounds pretty conclusive. Stay away from amaranth, red dye no. 2. Especially if you're a rat.

SW: And the Soviet government certainly thought so because they banned the use of red dye no. 2 in foods at that point.

CH: So then… the FDA must have learned about those studies and then they decided to ban it here as well?

SW: That's where you're wrong, Charlie! The FDA did find out about the studies, but pretty immediately they identified all these flaws in the research methodology the Soviet scientists were using. Like for example, the rat species they were testing on was prone to tumors to begin with. It was also super unclear what exactly the rats were being fed. And then in some of the studies, rats who were fed smaller doses actually ended up developing more tumors than rats who got higher doses.

CH: That does not make any sense – I mean, that seems to raise questions about whether or not red dye #2 was causing any of the tumors?

SW: The FDA would agree with you. But you have to remember, at this point, red dye no. 2 was being used in $10 billion worth of American food products!

JOHN SWANN: Oh, prior to 1971, it was probably the most commonly used color additive on the market!

SW: John Swann is an historian at the U.S. FDA, which if you haven't figured it out by now is the Food and Drug Administration. And he told me, even though those Russian studies looked pretty sketchy, the FDA was taking the safety of red no. 2 really seriously.

JS: It would be used in the food supply, in things like sodas and ice cream, it was used in lipstick and other cosmetics for drugs…it was [laughs] all over the marketplace. It was very popular.

SW: So, the FDA responded by getting the National Academy of Sciences involved and launching a "crash program" to get a bunch of new data about how red dye no. 2 affected rats. John Swann says they moved fast.

CH: Ok, so then the FDA came back with its own research, and it must have found something because it banned red no. 2!

SW: Eeeeeeehhhhh. No. Just like the Soviet studies that kickstarted this whole thing, a lot of the experiments in the "crash program" were scientific fiascos. The most famous one is probably one experiment the FDA conducted where a bunch of basic errors took place. We're talking junior high school biology-level messups.

JS: Unfortunately, during the course of this study, some of the groups, some of the feeding groups became intermingled.

SW: Oh, so the rats got mixed up! 

JS: Yeah, some did. Some did get mixed up.

CH: Wait, so they lost track of which ones they'd fed the dye to and which ones they hadn't?

SW: Uh huh. (laughs) And then on top of that, when the rats died over the course of the study, many of them were just left in their cages, which meant that when they went to do research—

CH: Like autopsies and look at them later.

SW: Yeah autopsies to, yeah exactly to try to figure out like where they had tumors, if it could be associated with the dye, none of that was valid because the bodies of the rats were rotting.

CH: It's like doing a study and then 'we forgot we were doing this study!'

JS: Obviously it was a problem, and certainly an embarrassment I suspect to those involved.

SW: By this point, Ralph Nader—the famous consumer advocate—had caught wind of the Russian studies and the FDA's research. And as early as 1971, he and his Health Research Group were lobbying congress to ban red no. 2.

CH: Aaaaaaand… that's the reason why it was banned?!

SW: Nope. Scientists were still struggling to pull off a clean experiment to prove that it was dangerous! In the span of six years, Charlie, more than 30 studies of red no. 2 were conducted, by private industry, independent laboratories, and the FDA. But, in the meantime, the American public was cottoning on to what was going on with red food coloring. And all these studies, even if confusing or poorly done or not conclusive, by 1976, the news stories being written about them sounded pretty intense…

NEWSREEL: March of Dimes Urges a Ban For Now on Red No. 2 Food Dye.

NEWSREEL: Red 2: The Abortion Pill You May Not Want.

NEWSREEL: so dangerous that if a 110-pound pregnant woman drinks more than a third of a can of strawberry soda pop a day, she risks either cancer or damaging her baby.

NEWSREEL: There is no way consumers can know if they are eating the dye.

NEWSREEL: Red Dye No. 2 forces mint recall by FDA.

NEWSREEL: FDA recalls children's lollipops.

WAYNE PINES: Red no. 2 was in the newspapers, it was on radio and television.

SW: Wayne Pines worked at the FDA during the 1970s…

WP: I was the spokesperson, and so that was my job to see to it that those stories were accurate.

SW: Pines told me the FDA was not used to being on the front pages of newspapers. This was all happening before the agency really became a household name in the US.

CH: Right, because after red food coloring in the seventies and eighties, I remember there were other food scares and confusing studies that involved the FDA. One that stands out to me is saccharin and Tab sodas, not that I drank them, and there was some sort of rumor that they could cause cancer, I mean I remember that being a big deal.

SW: Yes! And part of the reason Pines remembers the red no. 2 scare so well all these years later is because it was where that era began for him. This was really his first page one story.

SW: Yeah. So at what point did you realize that this was not going to be a story that blew over in a day?

WP: I think when consumers started to call and ask for a list of products that contained red no. 2. 

SW: So customers are seeing this product that almost all of them are coming in contact with, maybe on a daily basis, and the word "cancer" in the same sentence, and so they're panicking.

WP: Right. Right, right, right. And again, it hadn't been shown to cause cancer, but cancer came up because it… the studies did not show that it did not cause cancer.

CH: Right. Wait, that takes me, that's one of those where I have to stop and think for a moment. So we didn't, it doesn't prove it's cancer, but it doesn't prove it's not—

SW: It's not not cancer, Charlie.

CH: So basically what they're saying is—

SW: We can't prove that this is safe. It might be safe. We're not saying it's dangerous and if we believed it to be imminently dangerous it would not be on the market. However, we're working on proving that it's safe.

CH: Wow. Like that's a lot to, that's a lot to absorb because you're basically saying, 'we think it's safe but we can't guarantee that it's safe and we're continuing to study it so you're probably fine? But consumer beware.'

SW: And keep in mind, while all of this is happening, red no. 2 is out there. Shoppers are grabbing it off of grocery store shelves and eating it in the form of ice cream and soda and canned fruit and meat! Going to the supermarket is like playing minesweeper with red dye no. 2!

CH: I mean, I remember my family had those little plastic, squishy bottles with a dye in them that had like little dunce caps, and if I wanted to use the red one, I can remember asking my mom like 'Hey! Can I use the red dye to make cupcakes?' and it was just "stay away from that one!" And the other colors would go down to almost nothing… I think at my dad's house, those dyes may still actually be there.

SW: Yeah, there was a lot of confusion about whether or not the dye was actually dangerous, and that's because the FDA was still working on figuring that out, right? But I think the other thing that gets lost in how the media talked about this and how consumers reacted to this is what happened at the FDA was scientific research. And while I totally understand the consumer impulse to want to know right now, in the moment, whether the dye their children were eating was dangerous, I also think a lot of people lost sight of the fact that rigorous scientific research is a really complicated process that takes time. And to answer a question like 'does red dye no. 2 cause cancer?' you need years' worth of research controlling for so many different variables, and that process just doesn't happen at the same speed as a news cycle.

But, in 1976, the FDA finally made a decision about red dye no. 2. David Gaylor, the principal biological statistician at the FDA, was asked to do an analysis looking at the body of research that had been conducted. And then to come back with an answer about what to do. Here's John Swann, the FDA historian:

JS: So Gaylor came back within about, less than a month, and offered his take on the FDA's study, which essentially was that there was a statistically significant suggestion that red no. 2 dye could result in malignant tumors in aged female mendel-osborn rats.

SW: What does that mean? 

JS: Well, it means it could cause cancer (laughs), according to Gaylor's analysis.

CH: So that's what finally did it.

SW: That was the last nail in the coffin for red no. 2. But to be clear…. Gaylor's statistical analysis did not prove that red dye no. 2 caused cancer. It just gave the FDA enough reasons to feel like they couldn't say it was safe either. And within a couple of weeks, the FDA commissioner released a statement…

JS: "We have recently learned that our later study cannot establish the safety of red no. 2. Indeed, it raises again certain safety questions…"

SW: Revoking FDA's provisional approval of the dye and emphasizing that it was on manufacturers to prove it was safe if they wanted it back on the market. And to replace it, they brought in a dye called red no. 40.

CH: So what you're telling me is it took several years to prove, it involved a lot of bad science and poor communication and a bit of consumer panic, but in the end red M&M's might, possibly, could actually maybe cause cancer.

SW: No.

CH: No!?

SW: Charlie, red M&M's weren't even using red no. 2.

CH: Wait? What?

SW: They were using red dye no. 40, the dye that replaced red no. 2, the entire time. (laughs)

CH: Woah, woah, woah, woah. Wait, so why were red M&M's pulled off the market if they didn't even use red dye no. 2?

SW: I asked Mars that question. And a spokesperson told me: "color has always been an essential attribute of the M&M's brand, and we make changes throughout the life of a brand." They also confirmed red M&M's were not using red no. 2 at the time of the red scare. But, just looking at the situation in 1976 when red no. 2 was banned — I mean, it didn't seem to matter to people that there wasn't evidence that it caused cancer. It didn't matter that red M&M's weren't even using the same dye. Because Wayne Pines, the FDA's spokesperson, his phone was already ringing off the hook.

WP: At the time the ban was announced, everybody wanted to know whether red M&Ms caused cancer.

SW: Really? Why do you think they were so fixated on red M&Ms of all things when everything had red dye in it?

WP: Don't know. Don't know.

SW: Red food coloring had become such a hot topic that Mars probably just didn't want anything to do with it. In fact, we know that's the case, because their press people in 1976 said as much to reporters. And honestly, if the FDA couldn't explain the difference between red no. 2 and all other red food coloring to the public, why on Earth would Mars want to sign up for that job?

So, on January 1, 1977, the red M&M machines ground to a halt at Mars factories…

NEWSREEL: M&M lovers aren't seeing red.

NEWSREEL: New cliche: Rare as a Red M&M.

NEWSREEL: Face it. There just aren't any red M&M's left.

SW: And across the country — people like John Swann, who grew up to become an historian at the FDA — he ripped open a pack of M&M's only to find them one color less exciting than they'd been the day before.

JS: I personally remember the red M&Ms going away, but you know, I didn't mind so much because the caramel colored ones were my favorites! (laughs) I mean, I realize there's no flavoring added to the coating, but I still say the caramels were the best!

SW: I find it sort of amazing that, with all its bungled studies and the confusion and miscommunication, the most lasting symbol of the red scare is… the red M&M.

CH: I think I get that, that's what consumers saw, that the red M&M's absence was this proof, that the red scare wasn't all made up, that there was maybe some sort of issue there when it came to red food coloring.

SW: Sure, but I mean, this was so much bigger than the red M&M! Red no. 2 stumped multiple governments, it obsessed the media… it made all of us hedgy around food coloring for decades…

CH: I still am a bit…

SW: It got wrapped up in all these gigantic questions about public health and science and the news cycle… but none of it actually had anything to do with M&M's. But I guess because Mars pulled them off the market anyway, that was all the proof anyone needed.

CH: But the red M&M's did not stay away forever… After the break, how a lonely college student in Tennessee came up with an elaborate prank that spiraled into something no one saw coming…

ACT II

CH: We're back. If I go to the store today and buy a pack of M&Ms and open it up, I'm going to find six colors inside.

SW: Blue, yellow, green, orange, brown…

CH: And red!

SW: Red! Red is back!

CH: So how did this happen? How did the red M&M go being a symbol of this red food coloring scare for so many of us… back to business as usual?

SW: That is thanks in part to a guy named Paul Hethmon.

CH: Paul Hethmon, he's? A scientist? He worked at M&Ms?

SW: Paul Hethmon was a college student at the University of Tennessee. And if you don't mind, Charlie, Paul and I are gonna take the story from here.

CH: Alright. Green M&M!! Go!

SW: So, like many of us, Paul Hethmon opened a pack or two of M&Ms in his youth. But when he was growing up back in the '70s, the inside of the bag looked very different.

PAUL HETHMON: You had dark brown, light brown, orange, yellow, green? But I mean, except for green, you had like a bunch of dull colors.

SW: It's 50 shades of beige.

PH: Yeah, it was just a bunch of little dark chocolate chips, basically. It wasn't very exciting.

SW: "Not very exciting" sounds to me like sort of a genius branding strategy in the wake of the red scare. And if it was a branding strategy, it was working. Because Paul and his friends were not scared of red M&M's.

PH: It was just kind of like a running joke in my little clique.  And I think it was a little bit anti-establishment or whatever, talking about 'Ey! We can't have red M&Ms anymore because all the rats died.' I mean I didn't really know the details, it was just like 'rats ate red dye, they died.'

SW: When Paul and his friends graduated high school, they all moved away from the little town where they grew up in northwest Tennessee. And Paul ended up alone at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The first couple months of college felt slow, and it got Paul thinking…

PH: 'Man I'm just kinda a little bit lonely, a little bit bored, what am I going to do here?' and for some reason I just got this wild idea that I'll do this for a fun thing for my friends!

SW: Paul decided to create a mock advocacy group calling for the return of red M&M's. And then—in the style of other spam marketing mail he'd seen—he sent out an invitation to each of his friends, typed up on custom letterhead.

PH: So the letter started out, it said 'you,' and there was a comma, and then there was a line, printed on the piece of paper, 'have been invited to join the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms.' And I hand-wrote everybody, all my friends' names in there. So 'you, Sarah Wyman, have been invited to join the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms.' And then the letter said 'and what the hell is the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms?!'

SW: The Society was supposed to be an elaborate joke. An over-the-top parody of a direct-mail fundraising campaign. But before long, it had started to take on all the trappings of a real society. Including the costs.

PH: So, 1982, freshman in college, and I wasted $100, which was a fortune, on having this letterhead stuff printed up, and little business cards, which was your membership card of course, and stuff. And just sent it out to my friends, just as a way to say hi!

SW: Well, I was going to say, did it ever occur to you that this was so much work for… a joke?

PH: No, not at all. The best practical jokes, things like this, they take effort! You can't just do them just on the spur of the moment, you have to put effort into them so people appreciate it. 

SW: For just 99 cents, new members of the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms could receive a branded membership card, signed by Paul—the President and Chairman of the Board—as well as five sheets of official letterhead and five official envelopes.

Paul's now-wife, who was just a friend at the time, sent in her membership fee by individually taping 99 pennies to the back of Paul's mailer before returning it to him. Another friend thought the whole thing was so funny that he wrote up a column about it in the University of Tennessee's student paper.

PH: And honestly, that's where it's like 'heh, okay, it's over.' Went about my business. You know, into winter, into spring, and then all of a sudden, I get a call. And it's a writer from Seventeen magazine.

SW: The reporter had gotten a copy of the story Paul's friend wrote via a news clipping service. Paul talked to her a couple of times, told her his version of events, and then… he sort of forgot about the whole thing. Until, a couple months later…

PH: I get another call, and it's like 'hi, I'm so and so, I'm with the Wall Street Journal. I've got a friend who writes for Seventeen magazine, and she was telling me about this red M&M thing.' And I was like 'okay, sure.' And… no clue. I mean, I'm clueless, like 'Wall Street Journal? I've heard of that… what is that?'

SW: Turns out, a couple other people had also heard of the Wall Street Journal. And after Paul's story ran, lots of them wanted to know more about his society.

PH: All of a sudden, I was fodder for every radio morning drive show in the United States.

SW: Prospective members started sending letters to Paul's P.O. box from all over the English-speaking world. Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, most of Canada, states across the U.S. And those letters included all kinds of stuff.

PH: One of the letters I got one day had this little decrepit looking red M&M in it.

SW: Somebody had held on to a red M&M from the early '70s, from before the red scare, and sent it to Paul as a token of their appreciation.

PH: It might have been a red M&M, it might have been something else. It was definitely the right shape, it was a bit faded and cracked and old and definitely wouldn't eat it, but…

SW: Another highlight: Paul got a membership request in the mail from the marketing director of M&M Mars. And he used a company check to pay for his membership!

PH: Of course, I was so broke as a college student I cashed the check instead of keeping it, and I should have kept it.

SW: Yeah, but those funds had to go to the cause!

PH: Yes, like supper.

SW: That's the thing. Paul hadn't really thought through the Society's operating budget before he pulled the trigger. And now he was getting hundreds of letters in the mail. Responding to each membership request cost him around $2.

PH: So all of a sudden, it was like 'hey, this is like costing me real money!' I mean, there were times when it actually, I mean, I'd get 10-20 letters a day in the post box that I'd want to try and answer. So between class load and work and stuff like that, it was, you know, a bit of a challenge at times.

SW: You became like a full-time employee of a fake charity.

PH: Yes! Yes. And it was definitely a non-profit charity.

SW: But as the Society started to really pick up steam, the perks of Paul's President and Chairman of the Board gig leveled up too. Like, at one point, Charles Kuralt—the famous CBS news anchor—stopped by Paul's college apartment to interview him in the living room for his show "On the road with Charles Kuralt." And Paul almost scored an invitation to Late Night with David Letterman, which would have been really cool if it had panned out. But unbeknownst to Paul, the real payout was waiting just a couple years down the road… in 1987.

PH: So at that point, I had graduated, and I was actually working as a commercial photographer here in Knoxville, and I was at the studio, and all of a sudden, I get a call, somebody asking about M&Ms. I talked to that person and hung up, and an hour later, somebody else called… and 'yeah, I'm him, yes I did that, blah blah blah,' and finally, a third person called. And I'm talking to them, and finally I'm like 'why are y'all calling me today??' And they go 'well they haven't told you?' 'Told me what!?' 'They're bringing back red M&Ms!' That's how I found out.

NEWSREEL: Red M&M's back for the next generation.

NEWSREEL: Return of red M&Ms delights Knoxville campaigner.

NEWSREEL: The world is a little less drab for Paul Hethmon.

NEWSREEL: Paul S. Hethmon is feeling like a champion these days. As well he should. How many among us can say that we've changed the world?

SW: Did you feel powerful in that moment?

PH: (laughs) I don't know, I wouldn't say powerful. You know…

SW: You changed the course of history! (laughs)

PH: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. Lighthearted history, but yeah, I guess I did.

SW: A couple of days later, Paul got a letter in the mail from the Public Relations director at Mars. The letter started: "Dear Paul: Good things do happen to those who wait. Although we have never met, I have followed with interest the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms and am pleased to be able to share some news I think you'll enjoy receiving."

He also sent along a little 'thank you' of sorts…

PH: It was two boxes, cardboard boxes, probably, you know, 16 or 18 inches on a side. Full of M&Ms. And only red.

SW: Paul and his friends threw a party. At the end of the night, all the red M&Ms were gone.

Charlie, I like to think we got the red M&M back because of Paul. Like it wasn't because the food coloring scare had died down or because of a promotion… it was because a kid in Tennessee said out loud what all of us were thinking:

CH: We want red M&Ms!

SW: In reality, it was probably a lot more complicated. But for once in the saga of the red M&M I would love for it to just be that simple.

SW: It's funny, I've been thinking a lot about what all of this means… (laughs) And I wonder… I mean, do you feel like there are any takeaways here? What is the legacy of this campaign?

PH: Uh… is there a legacy? 

CH: Yes. There is. We were all taught lessons by that little red M&M: The FDA, the candy maker, and us.

That's after the break.

ACT III

CH: We're back. When Sarah and I were in the studio with Jason Liebig, the candy man and the inspiration for this story, we had a list of questions for him about M&Ms and the red scare…

SW: But I also really wanted to ask him about this advertisement M&Ms ran in 2008, which we saw on his website.

SW: What the heck is this!?

JL: REDDOLUTION!! Um, that was just from a promotion they did. It's this very Soviet 1930s-era, propaganda-inspired poster, incredibly designed, it says "the reddolution is now" and it's got this Cyrillic-inspired lettering with backwards letters, and it says "vote red" at the bottom, but it's got this sort of proletariat, the workers down below, marching with flags, and it's got the red M&M, the red M&M with its fist up in the air, and it's got a very Che Guevara sort of beret with a star on it…

CH: A red star!

JL: A red star! Yes! I mean, it's very Soviet.

SW: Apparently this ad ran as part of an M&Ms campaign in Australia and New Zealand. Mars made a bunch of posters like this one, one for each color, all of them had different themes. And fans were encouraged to vote for their favorite M&M character, like red, blue, green.

CH: Yeah, it's almost certainly just a weird coincidence. But still, bold moves Mars! Advertising the red M&M with a Soviet Union-style propaganda poster! For an election!

SW: Do you think Mars is laughing at the joke here or do you think they're totally oblivious to that connection?

JL: I would like to think there's someone at Mars who's like 'oh, this is gonna be too good! Because he's red, red scare, he's the red M&M that got pulled because of the Russian red scare, oh it's just too perfect.' Yeah, I hope that someone did that. If they weren't aware of it, it's just a great of accidental genius, because it is kind of ingenious. It represents all of this so well.

SW: Even if there's no connection between this particular campaign and the red food coloring scare, fears about red food coloring did have a huge impact on Mars. As we saw, it pulled the red M&M when the public got vocal. And, according to a company spokesperson, it brought the red M&M back years later because of consumer demand. In other words, after people like Paul Hethmon and his "Society" asked for it back. Jason pointed out that the whole experience taught M&M's something important.

JL: They realized maybe for the first time, the real relationship that consumers had to their brand. And I was so grateful when I started doing all this research, going through all my stuff, I don't think I even realized it at first, because I have so many of these things, I realized I had one of the packages that welcomed red back into the packaging. They talk about, right on there, they have red M&Ms, they don't quite get into 'oh, these things were banned for ten years or whatever…'

CH: (laughs)

JL: They just say 'look, now even more colorful!' And I think for the first time, M&Ms realized 'this is an opportunity. We brought back red, that was a specific thing that we stopped doing, but we could maybe make a marketing event around introducing other colors.' And for the next 15 years, you would see them do a new color promotion every year or two.

SW: On its surface, this is all funny and lighthearted. A real happy ending to this story. But let's not forget, the M&M's branding renaissance may have come about because the American public spent a decade being suspicious of food that used red dye. And if you ask me, that feels pretty messed up. The fact that Mars felt like it had to discontinue red M&Ms just because they were red…

CH: When they weren't even using the food coloring that was being investigated…

SW: That feels like a really clear sign that we—the public, the press, companies like Mars—we were not clear on the problem. We didn't understand what potential danger was even being discussed during the red scare. And when we're making decisions about public health and cancer and product safety, I feel like we should all at least be clear on what conversation we're having. Wayne Pines, the former FDA spokesperson, he told me he still sees this as a huge concern.

WP: I don't blame the public for being confused about science because we are inundated with scientific studies, and it's hard to distinguish the good from the bad…

CH: Right, like trying to keep track of, I don't know, whether or not caffeine is supposed to be good for you these days…

SW: It's impossible!

CH: It feels like every day there's a new story with a new study with different results. And I'm going to keep drinking coffee no matter what!

SW: Look, I'm a journalist, and I get it. Sometimes we have to simplify complicated stories in order to get the most important points across, or to fit into 500 words or 5 minutes or a reader's attention span. Like, I had to do that for this story! I have more than two hours' worth of tape of me talking to John Swann and Wayne Pines about the FDA and red no. 2. But all of that background couldn't fit into this episode. Stuff got left out.

So, as a consumer, here's the question, then. How do we know when we should be seriously worried that, say, red M&Ms… or a few years later, it was saccharin… when should we be worried that they might be giving us cancer, and when should we just… trust the scientists and journalists to do their jobs?

WP: I mean schools need to teach this better, the media needs to do a better job of education, the government needs to do a better job of outreach, but I can tell you having tried all that, it's hard. Because people have their own educational backgrounds, they have their own perspective, they have their own emotional reactions to the food that they're eating, to the drugs they're taking, so it's hard to persuade people. 

CH: Did we ever figure out for sure whether red no. 2 actually does cause cancer?

SW: Uhh…. no! As of this moment, no one has successfully demonstrated that it is safe by the FDA's standards. So we still can not say that it causes cancer. And we also can not say that it does NOT cause cancer. But I feel like we've mostly recovered from the red scare! I mean, the red M&M is back, people aren't giving red-colored foods a wide berth in the grocery store… and at least in my family, the red food coloring bottle is back in the game!

CH: Okay, but I've been hearing this other thing about red dye actually… And I don't know if you knew this… that it's actually made of mushed up bug parts!

SW: Oh noooo!

CH: It's true, it's true!

CH: We have a little gift for you.

JL: Oh nice!

CH: Oh, but you have to look closely at them…

JL: Oh my goodness…

SW: Charlie got his new best friend Jason a bag of custom red M&Ms. And on the M&Ms Charlie didn't already eat, it says in tiny white letters…

JL: Brought to you by… Jeez. Brought to you by the red M&M. Wow, look at this! That's fantastic. Now that's branding, ladies and gentlemen [in unison with Charlie] Now that's branding. Wow.

CH: That's Jason Liebig, candy collector and historian. You can read more about his work at collectingcandy.com.

CREDITS

CH: Hey, speaking of our favorite foods from the '80s, do you remember the California Raisins commercial? With the dancing claymation raisins?

[CLIP OF HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE]

We need your help! Record a voice memo telling us about your memories of the ad and what it meant to you, and then send it to us at [email protected] Or, leave us a voicemail at (646) 768-4777. Go ahead and hit the 15 seconds, go back, get all that info again.

And while you're at it, let us know what you think of the show. We're on Twitter @BTYBpod, and on Facebook. Just search Brought to you by podcast. Also, I know podcast hosts say this all the time, but it really does make a difference if you leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. We appreciate the feedback, and it helps us keep making the show.

This episode was reported and produced by Sarah Wyman, with Julia Press and me.

Our editors were Micaela Blei and Carolyn Dubol.

Sound design by Bill Moss. Casey Holford and John DeLore composed our theme. Music from Audio Network.

Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.

Special thanks to the FDA History Office and Lyndsay Meyer for their help with this story. The headlines you heard—this feels a bit like an Oscars speech—were read by Claire Banderas, Margaret Bowani, Libby Brandt, Clayton Dyer, Rich Feloni, Graham Flanagan, Meg Teckman-Fullard, Juliana Kaplan, Dave Mosher, Christian Nguyen, Lauren Thompson and our very own Julia Press.

BTYB is a production of Insider Audio.

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