(WBIR) Tear open a bag of M&M's and you'll find a wide range of bright colors on the candy shells that coat the iconic chocolates. You can thank Paul Hethmon of Knoxville for the red ones. He is the sole reason red M&M's exist today.
Hethmon is a software developer and happily-married father who lives with his family in Farragut. In the 1980s, he was a bored college student at the University of Tennessee who crafted a playful joke that eventually grew into a worldwide rally to bring back the banished red M&M.
"Today they talk about things going viral on the social networks. Back then the internet didn't exist. Facebook didn't exist. Well in the 1980s, I went viral with newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and letters in the mail. It was a lot of fun and something I will never forget."
THE RED SCARE OF 1976
In the 1970s, a Soviet scientific study linked a certain type of red dye to cancer. The dye, known as Red No. 2, was never proven to be carcinogenic. Even so, the FDA erred on the side of caution and banned the use of Red No. 2 in 1976.
The Mars candy company did not use Red No. 2 to make its red M&M's. Nonetheless, the company decided to banish red M&M's from its production lines to eliminate any possible confusion or fear among the candy-consuming public.
"We always used to joke in high school about how everything was dangerous because of all of the weird scientific studies you read about. Things like, 'You know, caffeine can kill you if you drink 1,000 bottles of soda in one day.' And how the red M&Ms were gone because some rats somewhere died because of red dye," said Hethmon. "When I was in school, M&M's were really dull colors. You'd open a bag and there'd be mostly browns and tans."
SATIRE FORMS SOCIETY
In the fall of 1982, Paul Hethmon was starting his first semester at the University of Tennessee.
"I was an 18-year-old freshman from Union City, Tennessee. That's around 350 miles away in the extreme northwest corner of the state, so I only knew a handful of people. So I was kind of bored and lonely with too much time on my hands. And I decided one day I'm going to have some fun to get back in touch with my friends," said Hethmon.
From boredom was born a spoof of junk mail letters that asked people to join exclusive clubs in exchange for a small fee. Think of it as the 1980s stamp-and-letter version of getting an email from a Nigerian prince.
"Everyone used to get junk mail letters in those days, so it started really as a joke among a few friends. I sent them a typed letter telling them 'Greetings' and they had been selected to join the 'Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&M's.' All they had to do was send dues of 99 cents and they would get an official lifetime membership card signed personally by me. It really was a satire on mailing campaigns. But my friends enjoyed it and sent me back stuff and I sent them their membership cards."
The group held meetings and brought a red M&M that was found in someone's box of childhood toys. The only surviving red M&M was jokingly worshiped as "more precious than a diamond" by the group of college students.
BLACK-AND-WHITE AND 'RED' ALL OVER
Hethmon and many of his college buddies worked for The Daily Beacon campus newspaper. One of the reporters wrote a story about the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&M's. Soon, the society was in black-and-white and was truly read all over.
"One of the guys at The Beacon, Chris Lamb, wrote an article about our society. He knew someone at Seventeen Magazine who really liked the story. She called me up and did an interview for the magazine. Then she told one of her friends at the Wall Street Journal about it and they did the story."
Hethmon said when he did the interview with The Wall Street Journal, he never could have imagined the overwhelming response that would follow. Not only was there a proliferation of stories in newspapers throughout the world, people across the globe suddenly wanted to join Hethmon's society.
"This story about how we wanted to bring back red M&M's really struck a chord with people. And The Wall Street Journal, this was a newspaper that was being read by millions and millions of people around the world. I got boxes and boxes of letters from people all over the English-speaking world who wanted to join our society. We had members in Europe, in Australia, and in Hong Kong. I had to raise the dues because it would cost me more than $.99 just to mail them back their membership cards."
Part of the mission to restore red M&M's included writing letters to influential people. They wrote letters to the Mars candy company. They wrote to U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Suddenly, an inside joke among a few college friends had become a real crusade for red candy. Everyone wanted to hear Hethmon's story. Radio stations around the world called him to conduct comical telephone interviews during their morning shows. Even the major television networks came calling.
"I had Charles Kuralt stop by my college apartment in Fort Sanders to interview me about red M&M's. That had to be the high point for me to have this international journalist in my college apartment. And back then there were only three television networks for news, so you're talking about one of the most well-known journalists in the country or the world. They shot the interview in 1983, but something happened where they did not air it. At least, not at the time."
One of the people who joined the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&M's was Hans W. Fiuczynski, the External Relations Director for Mars, Inc., in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Simply put, Fiuczynski handled the media and public relations for M&M's. He also had a sense of humor.
"I never actually wrote the Mars company. He found my address and wrote the letter to me. I got a check from M&M's Mars for $.99 for their public relations guy to join the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&M's. Today, if you get a letter like that you would expect it to be from a lawyer to cease and desist, but they had a sense of humor and ran with it," said Hethmon.
Hethmon's red-letter day arrived on January 9, 1987, with a message from Hackettstown, New Jersey.
"This letter says, 'Dear Paul: Good things do happen to those who wait!' They reintroduced red M&M's! They included a copy of the five-page press release they issued to all of the newspapers and media. I got the letter a couple of days after I found out because the press release went out immediately to all of the media. I started getting a bunch of calls and couldn't understand why people were asking me about red M&M's all of the sudden. Someone said, 'Well, haven't they told you? They reintroduced red M&M's.' I said, 'No! I didn't know that!'"
After being banished in 1976, the only time anyone was able to relish the red M&M was during two small cameo appearances in Christmas-themed M&M's in December 1985 and December 1986. Then in February 1987, the reds were finally fully restored to bags of plain and peanut M&M's.
"I got another letter from Hans in February. They shipped me 50 pounds of nothing but red M&M's. We had a big party with a band, red M&M's, red beer, and just celebrated," said Hethmon. "Then Charles Kuralt aired a story about the return of the red M&M on the CBS Evening News and finally used all of that video from our interview in 1983. That was a real kick to be on national television."
PRESERVATION AND PROLIFERATION
Red M&M's have been back in the bag for more than 27 years. The 1987 story by Charles Kuralt began by noting there were generations of children born since 1976 who never knew there were once red M&M's. Today, generations people never knew red M&M's were gone.
Red is not only restored. It's the main character featured in commercials for M&M's.
"I mean, 'Red,' he is the guy. Whenever I see the commercials with the red M&M, it crosses my mind that I had a hand in that. I've joked that Mars owes me millions of dollars because they've been able to use 'Red' in all of their merchandise and their M&M's for Christmas and the Fourth of July."
Hethmon says today only a small group of long-time friends and family know he is responsible for the existence of red M&M's.
"It's not that I'm hiding it. It just doesn't come up in normal conversation. I can only think of one time I brought it up on my own to someone who did not know the story. I was with a friend who is colleague from work when we were in Las Vegas for a convention. They have the big M&M's store out there and I said, 'Hey, let's go over to that store. I brought back the red M&M.' He said, 'What in the hell are you talking about?' I said, 'Well, Google me if you don't believe it,'" laughed Hethmon.
There's also a pile of paraphernalia and memorabilia that has grown in Hethmon's home through the years.
"I have a whole bunch of stuff. I have all kinds of red M&M dispensers, figurines, glass jars, and other collectibles that people have given me through the years. Basically, when Christmas time comes around and the family doesn't quite know what to buy you, anything with a red M&M is fair game."
Hethmon still enjoys tearing into a bag of M&M's with the knowledge his efforts a few decades ago have made every day in candyland a whole lot brighter.
"Sure, it's something I'm proud of. I was a 19-year-old kid who got more than my 15 minutes of fame. It's a great story to tell my kids and friends. It was a fun thing to have done."
A few years after Hethmon saved the red M&M in 1987, Mars made another color change to brighten the bag of candy. In 1995, tan candy shells were eliminated and replaced with the debut of blue M&M's.