YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- What happens when people use your brand in unconventional ways? Sometimes you end up with the Diet Coke and Mentos experiments. Sometimes you get "How to Smoke Smarties."
In the latest example of a social-media world where any 10-year-old with a half-baked idea, your product and a cheap webcam can seek his or her 15 minutes of online fame, dozens of YouTubers -- mostly junior-high-school kids, it seems -- are posting videos of themselves and their friends crushing up the cellophane-wrapped, pressed-sugar candies, sucking the candy dust out and puffing it into the air in mock-smoking style.
It's not a new fad. Most of the videos are fairly old, including one that goes back at least two years. The big hit so far -- this week's runaway "How to Smoke Smarties" video filmed by YouTube youngster "baller4life," aka Titus -- was created in December 2007.
But suddenly the fad is getting attention. The video now appears near the top of the Google results page in a more general search for just "Smarties."
Why it's getting buzz now
Why now? It seems to be a simple case of exposure. Last week the video was featured on BuzzFeed and then on Monday appeared on CollegeHumor; the popular video-gamer destination G4tv.com's "Attack of the Show"; and the "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" blog. And so began the rise of Titus' 1 minute, 38 second Smarties-smoking tutorial.
"It's not that unusual for a video to take a while to catch on," said Kevin Joy, BrandIntel VP-marketing and client services. "A video can lie dormant for a while, and then it gets some exposure, media pick it up, and it goes off -- at least until the next 'Smoking Smarties' video comes along."
Kids have been hip to the phenomenon for quite some time, apparently. Along with the dozens of how-to videos on YouTube, there are many MySpace mentions, a Facebook support group for "all you who are addicted to smoking Smarties," and countless bulletin boards and chat rooms full of smoking-Smarties confessions. There is definitely a backlash as well, including comments rife with warnings and criticism about the stupidity of it. ("WTF?" is a very common comment.)
One party in agreement is the marketer of Smarties. "It's certainly not endorsed by us. We don't endorse smoking, but we can't control what people do out there," said Eric Ostrow, VP-sales and marketing for Ce De Candy, the owner of the Smarties brand. He said he's been aware of the YouTube videos for more than a year, but Ad Age's query was the second call this week -- and the only one he's ever received regarding the videos.
New experience for Ce De
It's a new and unwelcome experience for Ce De, a 60-year-old family-owned company that has never had a recall, much less a whiff of scandal.
Then there's the question of how, or even whether, to respond to just social-media wildings (see box). Isn't all PR good PR? In the case of Mentos and Diet Coke, which turned out to be wildly popular and brand-enhancing (family fun, entertaining, cool science project) for both brands, Coca-Cola hung back, initially offering only hats, T-shirts and goodwill to experiment creators Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz of Eepybird. However, in the case of Smarties, whose brand is being connected to the unhealthy act of smoking -- and smoking by kids no less -- the company is distancing itself and denying a connection.
Unfortunately, any brand is fair game, said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services. And Ce De, by speaking out and saying it doesn't condone the activity, is doing about as much as it can right now, he said. "For every time we have a Coke/Mentos, we need to keep in mind the equal opportunity of social media. It can go both positive and negative," he said, adding that one of his concerns for Smarties now is the video showing up at the top of a Google search. "That's where you could start to have a problem with general consumers getting the wrong idea. ... I know we all like a positive story ... but the real story in social media is how brands are challenged and eroded by it."
The sales effect
Any effect on Smarties sales is difficult to discern. Sales of all Smarties-branded candy totaled $10.54 million in 2008, up just slightly from $10.46 million in 2007, according to data from Information Resources Inc. However, that was markedly better than the overall novelty, non-chocolate candy category, which was down 11% year over year.
Industry watchers don't believe smoking Smarties is a widespread trend for several reasons. "I don't have any specific information on any impact it may have had, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it isn't going to gain the same popularity as the Mentos thing, which was featured on many national news shows. ... In this case, I think those same programs would feel the same way I do, in terms of appropriateness for youngsters," said Caitlin Kendall, editor of Candy Addict, in an e-mail, prefacing her comment by saying it's not something she would write about on the site.
Besides, Mr. Ostrow pointed out, "Citric acid is a food flavoring we use in Smarties, and if any kid accidentally got citric acid in their nose, they'd never do it again."
Still, that won't stop some kids from doing it. "It seems to me a perfect example of the disruption that technology is causing in schools and in society," said Kevin Hogan, editorial director of Tech and Learning. "But you have to ask: Should you give the kid detention, or should you give him an A?" He added, "I'd give him an A."
- Don't fight it. Trying to cajole, warn, threaten or even sue someone who is misusing your product or making a joke will only come off as heavy-handed. "Maybe some Neanderthal thinks that they can control this, but the reality is no one can," said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services. And antagonistic attitudes will only invite more criticism and mocking.
- Survey the extent of the problem. Is it a small group of jokers no one will take seriously or a more reputable group? How damaging is what they're saying or doing? That is, are they completing maligning the product and associating it with extremely unsavory behavior? Or is it just goofing around?
- Turn to your social-media crisis plan. And if you don't have one yet, develop one.
- Be open with employees. They use social media too and likely already know about it. But make sure to discuss what's happening and give them the information you want conveyed (for instance, what to say if a friend asks at a party, "Hey, what's up with all these kids smoking Smarties?").
- Respond accordingly. At the very least, have a prepared statement for any media calls. Make sure it is available to all senior executives who may be queried. And make sure to respond as quickly and as transparently as possible to any direct questions from your customers.