Who Are You?

I made a video this week about M&M’s “indefinitely pausing” their spokescandies, naming Maya Rudolph their new spokeswoman—all because of some low-level controversy from last year.

In the video I argue that it’s just a ploy to gain attention in anticipation for their Super Bowl campaign. I’m not in love with the video (it’s not tight and I’m too harsh on Ms. Rudolph) but you can watch it here if you’re curious:

The reason I bring this up is that while working on the video something caught my attention in the M&M’s announcement.

At the end of it, which you can read in full here, they say:

We are confident Ms. Rudolph will champion the power of fun to create a world where everyone feels they belong.

That last phrase, create a world where everyone feels they belong, made me question the ways in which brands are intertwined with our identities.

You see, the supposed controversy that landed Ms. Rudolph’s sweet gig was all about identity.

Maybe you remember. In early 2022, M&M’s swapped out Green’s go-go boots for low-top sneakers to make her less of a sex symbol and more assertive. Tucker Carlson did a segment decrying the whole thing as leftist wokery. Then, later in the year, M&M’s introduced Purple, the first new character in over a decade. Purple represents inclusivity and it’s implied that she’s gay/trans/queer (take your pick). There was even a little campaign depicting Purple and Brown (a black woman?) sitting alone holding hands.

It seems pretty obvious that Mars Inc. has been trying to create a line-up of mascots that reflect the market: gay (purple), girl boss (green), anxiety-ridden (orange), bipoc (brown). Or, at least, this is the market that we’re led to believe represents the world we live in.

And this is where the statement comes in.

What M&M’s is really saying is that you can only feel like you belong in the world if the products you buy and consume share your identity—that you and I need our brands to affirm us or we feel excluded.

They’re on to something.

It seems like a growing number of people in our society are desperate to have their identities reflected and affirmed by brands. Of course, M&M’s is going the woke route, but what about Black Rifle Coffee? If you’ve got jacked biceps and like to shoot guns, then BRC is the coffee for you. Of course, physique and gunpowder have nothing to do with coffee but the brand has blown up (see what I did there?) since it’s 2014 founding and has gone public with a valuation of $1.7 billion. Right-wing, gun guys really identify with it.

Queer candy and tough-guy coffee are just the tip of the iceberg. Razors, sneakers, automobiles, airlines, banks, and software are tripping over themselves to show how much they represent, affirm, and celebrate their customers’ identities. And we’re eating it up.

It’s almost as if we don’t know who we are without surrounding ourselves with identity-affirming products and services.

So, who are you?

This is a new phenomenon in the history of mankind. For millennia people found their identities in the institutions of their society. Your sense of who you were came from your family, your tribe, your city, your faith, your people’s history. In all these things—these institutions—you found what was true and good. Our family is loyal. My people are brave. My city is just. My God is mighty.

Of course, we still have families and cities and faiths, but they do not hold the place in our lives that they once did. In fact, families are often broken, cities impersonal, and our faiths anemic. So, without these mediating institutions, we’re left to wander through life trying to figure out who we are; trying to find our identity. Into this vacuum pour corporations, brands, and governments to make us in their image.

This is why a mediocre candy can, with a straight face, take on the mantle of making a perfect world—a sort of heaven on earth—and most people will nod with grateful agreement.

I think there are two challenges (or maybe better yet, two opportunities) for anyone who isn’t interested in having their identity sold to them by a multi-national corporation or imposed upon them by the state.

The first challenge is to figure out who you are. This can be difficult and I’m no guru in this regard. I know that the challenge isn’t to invent yourself; to choose your identity like clothing off a rack. Rather it is the process of discovering who God made you to be. And, as I’ve said before in previous issues, a great place to start is with the classics of Western society: literature, the pursuit of God, civics, creativity.

The second challenge is to help those in your care and sphere of influence to come into a healthy sense of who they are. One way you can do this by helping to rebuild the institutions. We need healthy families, healthy cities and towns, healthy churches, healthy neighborhoods. It’s not hard. You just have to live by what you know to be true and good. If you’re a parent, work hard to make your family strong, and be purposeful in living and imparting your values. If you’re a neighbor, demonstrate generosity and kindness to the people that live near you. Maybe even visit a church in your neighborhood. Civics your thing? Get involved in municipal politics and help strengthen your city.

In all these things, the goal is to discover what is true and good and to be continually growing towards these things. And then to help others do the same.

When our identity is rooted in what is true and good we find that we don’t need publicly traded coffee companies or social-justice candy to affirm us because we already know who we are.

And who knows; maybe if M&M’s didn’t have to worry so much about our identities they could put more of their attention into making better candy.