When Paul Hethmon (BA ’86, MS ’93) entered UT in 1982, it was a bleak time for M&M lovers. His habit of saving the red M&Ms to eat last had come to an unexpected halt when he was twelve, and there was no indication of a color comeback as he began his freshman year.
The Mars candy company stopped making red M&Ms in 1976 after the FDA removed red dye number 2 from its safe list. The decision followed a Russian study in 1971 that reported the dye caused tumors in rats. The FDA concluded the study was flawed, and Mars didn’t even use that dye for M&Ms. However, a public scare developed, and Mars chose to stop making the red M&M.
Hethmon admits that even after becoming a Tennessee Volunteer, he never warmed up to the orange M&Ms that Mars added to the pack. “No, if anything I was really against all the brown. You had brown and you had tan. It was a very dull mixture.”
What candy lovers needed was a laugh, Hethmon decided, so he wrote a parody junk mail letter inviting his friends to join a group he made up called the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms. For dues of ninety-nine cents, he offered members five sheets of red M&M stationery, five envelopes, a membership card, and a newsletter.
Ironically, Hethmon says he probably spent close to $150 at a print shop so his letters would look official. “That was a pretty good chunk of money for a college student’s budget, but it had to have red on it. There weren’t any color laser printers then.”
Despite his efforts, Hethmon still thought of the society as a joke. However, his friends took the ongoing absence of red M&Ms seriously. “People actually started joining the society,” he says. “It became a real thing.”
Soon afterward, an article in the Daily Beacon, where Hethmon was a photographer, attracted attention from clipping services that would cut out print news stories of interest to their clients. Seventeen magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and deejays halfway around the world contacted him for interviews. “I learned that Australia is a lot of time zones different from us when it comes to morning drive time,” he says, admitting that he may have missed a few classes to keep red M&Ms in the spotlight.
Charles Kuralt even came to Fort Sanders in 1983 and interviewed the society, including the future Marci Hethmon (BA ’87), but CBS didn’t air the story.
Hethmon says the society grew to 400 to 500 members who hailed from several foreign countries, including Australia, Sweden, Belgium, and Canada. He had to raise the dues to $2.97 to cover the higher fees for printing and mailing.
The most surprising membership check the society ever received was from Mars itself, along with a letter saying the company was enjoying their effort. “A lot of people who joined the society wrote a letter and told them about us,” Hethmon explains. “You’d almost think that anymore if you did something like that, you’d get a cease and desist letter from their lawyers. But no, they rolled with it and joined and made millions and millions of dollars from all these different colors of M&Ms.”
Mars initially told Hethmon it had no plans to return red M&Ms to production; however, the wishes of the society, and countless other consumers, proved impossible to ignore. In 1985 and 1986, red was included in the bag for the holidays.
Then on January 9, 1987, Hethmon, who had since graduated from UT and gone to work as a commercial photographer, started getting calls from the media asking for his reaction to the return of red M&Ms. When he asked a caller what was going on, he learned that Mars had announced red was returning for good.
He remembers feeling “amazed and astounded” and receiving a personal letter from Mars that day, along with the official press release. “Good things do happen for those who wait!!” the company told him, but only sent him coupons to buy the new packs at a discount. CBS finally aired the four-year-old interview by Charles Kuralt as part of its report on red’s return.
Hethmon’s friends, Rene and Sam Jubran, decided the occasion deserved a party at their restaurant, the Falafel Hut. When they called Mars to ask for red M&Ms, the company got in the spirit and sent fifty pounds. Hethmon can’t remember how all those M&Ms got eaten, but he does recall the very large bowls it took to hold them all.
These days, Hethmon and his family live in Farragut, where he works as a software developer and still does an occasional interview about his role in the return of red M&Ms. “I got maybe eighteen minutes of fame instead of fifteen,” he says with a laugh.
Although he no longer saves the reds to eat last, Hethmon visits the silos of single colors at the M&M stores on occasion and replenishes his supply. “I don’t get a discount, though,” he says, “no special secret discount, no lifetime deal.”