“Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical” made its debut in a whirlwind tour encompassing one city, one stage and one single performance on Super Bowl Sunday. Despite positive—if somewhat confused–reactions from the 1,400-plus audience and rave reviews from the critics who turned out to Manhattan’s Town Hall Theater, Mars, the parent company of the Skittles brand, says there’s no encore or revival in the works at present, just some snippets of the musical numbers available online—oh and a four-minute soundtrack of one of the actors eating Skittles, in case that sort of thing floats anyone’s boat.
The show, in which Michael C. Hall of television (“Six Feet Under” and “Dexter”), stage (“Thom Paine” and “The Realistic Joneses”) and celluloid (“Gamer” and “East Fifth Bliss”) fame plays Michael C. Hall having an existential breakdown over a decision to shill for a corporate candy maker in a play that is a shill for a corporate candy maker, “Skittles Commercial” was a mini masterpiece of meta. Written by Pulitzer-finalist Will Eno, a specialist in self-referential existentialism, the play brings to mind what might have happened if Edward Albee had been commissioned by Slate magazine to write the stage version of Mad Men set to upbeat musical numbers rife with criticism, sarcasm and a healthy dose of fatalism. But fatalism in a fun way—with ultra-catchy, self-aware songs like “This Might Have Been a Bad Idea” and “Advertising Ruins Everything” that aim to sympathize and commiserate with audience exasperation over how much advertising permeates every corner of our lives and “ruins the web and it ruins TV/And it fills our in-boxes with spam.”
Advertising Ruins Everything—Except Skittles
But here’s the thing. The show is pure advertising. It’s this year’s version of Skittles’ Super Bowl ad, albeit one that involves no actual ad and no shelling out of $5.2 million for 30 seconds of broadcast airtime. This isn’t the first time Skittle has bucked Super Bowl ad conventions and still earned Super Bowl-size attention. Last year, the candy brand made an exclusive Super Bowl ad so exclusive that only one viewer got to see it—a 17-year-old California teenager named Marcus Menendez whose reaction to his private ad viewing was streamed live on Facebook during Super Bowl LVII. The pre-game ads, which were aired on TV but at substantially lower cost, starred David Schwimmer in a multitude of oddball characters that successfully drove buzz for the Facebook stream. The campaign earned 1.5 billion impressions—far more than the 110 million viewers who tuned into the game last year.
That ad was created by DDB—as was this year’s—and successful as it was in getting earned media impressions, Ari Weiss, the agency’s North American chief creative officer, told AdAge that it was too tough to scale to make it worth repeating this year. With the Broadway one-act, Skittles once again gets to earn unusual awareness without a $5 million price tag.
This year’s theater of the absurd exercise probably wouldn’t have worked as well if it weren’t what viewers already expect of the brand that not only pulled off last year’s oddball approach but takes a quirky approach to regular TV advertising with spots like Skittles Pox.
All’s Well in Candyland
As for plot, the play opens in a New York-style bodega into which Michael C. Hall enters looking like a refugee from a particularly grueling version of “Cats.” He is concerned about his choice to star in a play advertising Skittles and wonders if it will ruin his career. Random people from the audience (plants) engage him in grand-meaning-of-life questions in which Hall, audience and others on stage take turns bashing advertising all while advertising the candy. When the audience plants realize they too have been sucked into an exercise in cold capitalism, they rebel and end up killing Hall. Not to worry, with the help of Skittles, Hall’s ghost returns (along with Winston Churchill) to basically let the audience know that all’s well that ends well.
How it ends for Skittles is still up for grabs. It will take a while for all the media impressions and brand impact to come in but if last year is any indication, Skittles has another hit on its hands.
For a look behind the scenes of Skittles’ triumphant turn on Broadway, check out this piece by Ari Weiss and Patrick Milling Smith on shots.net.