Gray M&Ms; leave some seeing red Contest: Several candy lovers thought they had won $1 million when they found the odd color, but the fine print said otherwise.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Penni Wilson loves M&Ms.; She buys a pack of them every day on her break from her department store job at East Point Mall. The red ones are her favorite.

"I love the red," she gushes. "No one's allowed to eat the red."

Until, that is, she found not one, not two, but three gray M&Ms; during her daily sugar fix. Suddenly, gray was the only color that mattered.

Like M&M; lovers across the country, Wilson, 40, had heard on TV commercials that finding one of the chocolate candies with a gray shell meant she'd won a million dollars in the M&M;/Mars "Find the Imposter" sweepstakes.

The real surprise, though, came when she called the company's toll-free number last week to claim her prize. The gray M&Ms; alone, she was told, did not make her a winner; they had to be accompanied by an "Instant Winner" game piece (a cartoon on the inside of the M&Ms; package telling the consumer what they've won).

Sure enough, when she checked inside her wrapper, all she saw was "Sorry, try again," meaning all she'd won was an off-color candy.

The news had Wilson seeing red all over again.

"It was a rip-off," she fumes. "They tell you one thing, and you turn around and it's completely the opposite."

But the people at M&M;/Mars have a different story.

"If you read the rules, it tells you [the package is needed to win]," says Kathy Ljungquist a consumer affairs representative for the company. "You don't even send in the M&M;," she says. "You send in the game piece."

Wilson insists the commercials are misleading. Her co-worker, Pat Drylie, 47, agrees. Drylie also found gray M&Ms; in two separate packages last week. When she called the company, she was told the gray candies were a so-called "red light" -- merely to alert consumers about the contest, not that a prize has been won.

"What's the purpose of the gray M&M; if it means nothing?" Drylie wonders. "It's false advertisement And that is wrong."

As Ljungquist points out, specially marked M&Ms; wrappers state clearly that you need both the M&M; and the game piece to win. But the televised spots for the promotion only mention the game piece requirement in small print at the bottom of the screen.

Wilson and Drylie are not the first with dashed cash dreams. News reports of similar incidents have popped up all over the country in recent months. Earlier this month, a Chicago family hired lawyer Aron Robinson to file suit against the New Jersey-based company on the basis that the contest advertising violates the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act.

"You can't offer something in large print, and in fine print take it away," Robinson says. "Disclosures need to be prominently displayed."

Robinson says that since he filed the suit July 9, more than 100 people have contacted him with similar complaints. All, he says, feel as if "they've been made fools of." As a result, Robinson has made motion to declare the case a class-action suit.

"I'm not going to ask for a million dollars for every plaintiff," he says. "But we're entitled to something. We should be considered winners."

Mars has yet to respond legally to the claim, though the company has told Chicago media it believes the complaint does not have merit.

"The whole marketing plan was to promote finding the gray M&M;," Robinson counters. "It's deceptive, it's tricky and it's not good business."

As for Penni Wilson, she contacted a local attorney about the possibility of a lawsuit but couldn't afford the steep fees. She says she's behind Robinson's suit "100 percent," however, and plans to contact him and file a complaint of her own.

As mad as she is about the contest, though, Wilson can't see herself kicking her daily M&Ms; habit.

"I love 'em too much," she says.

Pub Date: 7/28/97

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