The Dramaturg: Dramaturgy Case Study: The Gnawing Horror of Skittles Commercials

Conservatively, I would say that candy comprises about 10% of my total diet. I can’t decide how alarming this is. I think it’s a lot. I spend an uncomfortable amount of time standing over the candy aisle at 7-11, considering the pros and cons of various candy brands. Yet I almost never consider Skittles. I can’t remember ever being disappointed with Skittles but it’s never what I gravitate towards. This is especially strange given how obsessed I am with Skittles commercials.

If I were in a Skittles focus group and I were asked to describe what is it I like about Skittles, I think I would say that they always seem refreshing to me. The predominant taste is of course chemical sweetness but to be fair, it’s a sharp, clear taste. When you taste lemon in a lemon Skittles, you sure as shit know it’s lemon. It’s that kind of honesty I find refreshing in an otherwise confusing world. I suppose my impression isn’t too far afield from the meaning behind “Taste The Rainbow.” This is the candy brand’s tagline and the foundation of their ad campaign. The commercials always end with “______ The Rainbow. Taste The Rainbow” where the blank is filled with some sort of command. See. Hear. Share. And then the ad is a riff on that.  I guess the implication of the phrase “Taste The Rainbow” is that you aren’t so much tasting fruit as you are tasting a color. Lemon isn’t just lemon anymore. Lemon is so lemon that the lines have started to blur and now it’s just yellow. It’s not a fruit, it’s a state of mind.

There is that psychedelic implication in the tagline. The image of a rainbow calls to mind the kaleidoscopic color scheme of ’60s era psychedelia, particularly its association to hallucinogenic drugs. So “taste the rainbow” becomes like an invitation to take acid like “Come on, baby. Taste the rainbow. Be somebody.”  Of course, when I imagine someone actually saying this, it always comes out like a satire of 80′s anti-drug PSA villains, some leering, menacing druggie, telling you to forget all of your hopes and dreams and instead taste the rainbow.

And so of course because ad agencies are full of diabolically clever people (or so I assume), they leaned right into this association, designing a series of ads that are at the very least surreal if not downright hallucinogenic themselves. They are bonkers crazy. This particular style  is called “oddvertisement,” and many give the Skittles ad agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day, credit for creating the genre. Gerry Graf of TBWA explained their strategy saying, “Masterfoods [the company that owns Skittles] had sort of set up this magical rainbow world that the Skittles brand lived in, a place where anything can happen. We took that idea of a magical world and really pushed the ‘strange’ factor.” They push it all right, right into all the grotesque that a bag full of rainbow-colored balls of sugar implies.

I have three favorites:

#1. Believe the rainbow
This is the OG, crazy Skittles ad. One on the one hand, it’s kinda just a well-made commercial. Simple premise. Good look. Nice sense of timing. But it’s also got all these peculiar nuggets of stylistic weirdness. The cartoonish brutality with which the spot’s stonerish “What if all of this doesn’t really exist?” central question is dismissed, the kid dropping off the rainbow like Wile E. Coyote for daring to even ask it; it all suggests a futility that’s a little unnerving, especially when combined with the general disinterest in the falling kid’s fate by the other two. It’s all so dry and bleak.

#2. Touch The Rainbow
Here, the dark psychedelia is turned into something sad. Listen to what the guy is saying when describing what it’s like to have everything he touches turn to Skittles: “Is it awesome? When you can’t hold your newborn baby boy in your arms? Did you feed and dress yourself this morning? I didn’t.” Good Lord. What a terrible existence. Then the image of the man shaking another man’s hand and watching him disintegrate into  thousands of Skittle, that loneliness, the subtle implication that you don’t even want the Skittles, that all the Skittles in the world couldn’t make you happy, it’s all pretty subversive stuff to be hinting at. The commercials start to feel a little dangerous. A little destructive.

#3. Chocolate The Rainbow
This is a scary commercial. Like, it’s a disturbing 45 seconds. And it really completes the Skittles ad campaign into full-on nightmare territory (subsequent ads in the campaign would end up bending the style back towards more conventional humor, though they weren’t still without a Monty Python kind of absurdity. Nevertheless, I think of “Chocolate The Rainbow” as the last hurrah). Human Pinata Man looks like he’s straight out of Hellraiser and the ad’s plot, that Human Pinata Man’s co-workers have been beating him, literally trying to beat open his body, to get at the Skittles within, makes me shudder. The wobbly gravitas of  Human Pinata Man’s voice always cracks me up here though. As does the way the man in “Touch The Rainbow” feebly slams his fists into the desk, only to have the desk turn into Skittles and crumble immediately to the ground, like a giant, cosmic middle finger. And the vacant stupor of the girl in “Believe The Rainbow,” the way she just goes on eating Skittles wordlessly. It’s a cruel world out there, kids. Turn on, tune in, drop out.

I suppose it’s no surprise that “oddvertising” is usually geared towards adolescents and mostly pops up with products like candy, products that serve no purpose and fill no need. But this is what fascinates me as a dramaturg. Without that agenda to adhere to, without the obligation to show us how this product will be better for me or will exactly fill some hole in my life (which is the part that makes ads so tedious), the writers must feel very liberated. If your only job is to be memorable, what do you choose to talk about and how do you choose to talk about it.

Filed Under: dylan southardFeaturedPonderings

Dylan Southard About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of Needtheater and the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company. He has worked with The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, Centerstage Baltimore, Native Voices at the Autry, the Network of Ensemble Theatres, Theatre Dybbuk, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and LoNyLa among others. He can be found @dylansouthard.

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  1. Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

    Spectacle over substance. Now I need a Skittle.

  2. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    I don’t know, Colin. These ads create a complete world in 15 seconds. Most of the theater I see can’t do that in an hour and a half.

    If you consider only a ratio of production dollars spent over running time, TV commercials are easily the most valued visual art form ever created. And when they’re good, they’re crazy good. There’s a reason talented people get paid so much to make them, and why no one pays anybody anything to act or write theater on Santa Monica Boulevard. I’m more emotionally involved, more surprised, more excited, by a half-dozen TV commercials a year than I am by almost any of the shows I see. Because those commercials are following the rules of good drama, and most of the shows are not.

  3. Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

    Oh, I agree. I think the best directors and writers today are working in television, hands down.

    Nevertheless, if you’ve got 30 seconds to work with you’re more than likely going to go with the visceral impact of spectacle because finding true story in that time frame is virtually impossible. Not always. I’ve seen some amazing 30 second stories, of course many of them occurred on my street corner as I was crossing the street.

    Still, if something moves you, it has merit in my book.