How M&M's Missed Out On That Famous Candy Moment In E.T.

"E.T." turned 40 in 2022. The sweet, tearjerker film about an endearing alien and a 10-year-old boy's love for his new friend still registers as one of the top ten highest-grossing films in history, per That mega-movie payoff changed the trajectory of the then-flailing Reese's Pieces candy, which weren't even in director Stephen Spielberg's original script.

Spielberg started with the makers of M&M's to strike a product tie-in with the movie that would showcase his favorite candy. However, the Mars, Incorporated parent company wanted more information than Spielberg was willing to provide, including the script, which was entirely under wraps. Production gave Mars generalities of the movie synopsis. But with so little to go on (and given product placement was still fairly unchartered territory when the movie was released in 1982), Mars passed on the deal, explains CBS 8.

Reese's Pieces hit the market just four years earlier, so when Spielberg suggested they approach The Hershey Company to use Hershey's Kisses as a next-best option, Hershey's made the deal work for them. The brand said yes to the tie-in deal but insisted it feature their still relatively new Reese's Pieces, which were in need of a sales a boost. The movie product placement was a colossal hit, according to Forbes; it increased Reese's Pieces sales by 65% within the two weeks following the movie's release.

Am I seeing M&M's or Reese's Pieces?

Today, 40 years on from the first release of the blockbuster, Reese's Pieces candies are as synonymous with "E.T." as the glowing finger and flying bicycle and iconic "phone home" phrase. But at the time the movie was released and for a little while following, M&M's were still on moviegoers' minds. 

Even the media relations manager for Hershey Foods Corp admitted to The Washington Post a month after the movie released that moviegoers were wondering if the trail Elliot left for E.T. was M&M's or Reese's Pieces. The candies looked inextricably alike, and M&M's were easily the more recognizable of the two at the time. Plus, the screenplay was quickly made into a published book, which described the candy by using the M&M's tagline.

However, the audience that Hershey's cared most about — the kids — could tell the difference right away. Shortly after that, parents could tell, too, thanks to a million dollar ad campaign blitz Hershey Foods launched featuring stickers, posters, T-shirts and specialty Reese's Pieces bags. Plus, the company partnered with concession stands to offer discounts on the candy during "E.T." showings and drugstores to offer discounts for turned-in ticket stubs. (All this, after paying zero dollars for the actual plug and placement in the movie, notes Boss Hunting.) In short order, M&M's was wiped from "E.T." moviegoers' sentimentality related to the movie, and Reese's Pieces took its rightful place in movie product placement history.

M&M's mistake likely wouldn't happen today

Today, movie product placement is big money for big exposure, with the top 10 movies of 2021 accounting for more than a billion dollars in ad revenue, according to The Hustle

An executive with today's voracious appetite for acquiring sought-after product placements might have been handy for M&M's when Spielberg suggested the movie tie-in back in the day; some of the confusion was apparently chalked up to a too casual approach by M&M's higher-ups. When "E.T." hit theaters, an M&M's spokesperson suggested that they had no record of having been approached, or maybe the call was re-routed, per The Washington Post

In modern terms, where a volleyball became Tom Hanks' costar in "Cast Away" after The Wilson Sporting Goods Company signed off with even less information than Spielberg was willing to spill in advance of his sweet alien movie, that missed, re-routed, rejected call was, unequivocally, a biggie. It didn't interrupt the long-term market hold M&M's has, but there's market status and pop culture status, and only Reese's Pieces live in "E.T." nostalgia lore.