Fake news, the culture wars, frapps, and what it all means
If you follow the sort of controversies that get airtime on Fox News, you’ve probably noticed that, again and again, one brand has been offending conservatives lately: Starbucks. There was the time Starbucks didn’t include explicitly Christian messaging on their holiday cups, and were lumped in with the secularists who are waging war on Christmas. There was the Race Together campaign, in which the brand launched and then scrapped an initiative to have baristas talk to customers about race. There was the time last year when a bunch of men told baristas to write “Trump” on their cups after a white guy claimed he was racially discriminated against at a Starbucks. And then there’s the fact that Starbucks founder Howard Schulz endorsed Hillary Clinton (and was floated as her possible Secretary of Labor).
The latest iteration of this trend came when Schulz announced that the company intends to hire 10,000 refugees over the next several years. Schulz’s statement came after Trump’s initial refugee ban, so conservatives viewed it as a direct attack. Starbucks should focus on America first and give jobs to military veterans, these people said, even though Starbucks has long had a program to do just that. Sketchy conservative sites ran with the story and said Starbucks was suffering because of it, even though there’s no solid evidence of any PR-related decline.
The number of people mad at Starbucks is probably never much larger than the number of people who are tweeting about being mad at Starbucks. But this perceived hatred is still enough to warrant a news story on some not-always-legitimate sites. Other sites pick up the story, and things soon snowball. Backlash to the controversy is followed by backlash to the backlash, and pretty soon Starbucks has to issue a statement saying, “Such backlash or declines are not substantiated in our own measurement of Starbucks brand health and consumer sentiment.” Which then gets written up, resulting in exponentially more coverage than a few tweets deserved.
It’s worth pointing out that not everyone is aware that Starbucks is supposed to be a liberal company. Friends who live in New York told me they associate the brand with tourists, sorority girls, and things they left behind in their conservative hometowns. And of course, the brand’s massive milkshakes are closer to traditional fast food fare than they are to coconut aminos or whatever it is liberals eat. In a way, Starbucks is the Lena Dunham of brands: hated by conservatives for being too liberal and mocked by the vanguard for being too mainstream. They really can’t win, save for the fact they’re unimaginably successful.
How did Starbucks become such an easy target in the culture wars? Of course, there is cafe culture’s long association with that most liberal of places, Europe. Starbucks may not look (or taste) anything like the quaint spots lining the streets of the continent, but its menu offers plenty of funny-sounding foreign words (imagine Hank Hill’s horrified reaction to Bobby ordering a venti mocha frappuccino). Then there’s the brand’s coastal pedigree. It was born in Seattle, expanded into many cities, and now has a presence in every suburb and mall around the country. To some conservatives, Starbucks is a force of liberal imperialism, invading their towns, misspelling their names, and suggesting they talk about diversity.
A cursory twitter search for “snowflake” and “latte” finds dozens of tweets conflating fancy coffee with “social justice warriors.” Similarly, #BoycottStarbucks brings up hundreds of tweets, mostly from right-wing accounts who are angry about the refugee hiring plan. I messaged an account named @moekamerow, who had posted an image macro of Middle Eastern men’s faces photoshopped onto the bodies of Starbucks employees with the text “Hello infidels how may we kill you today,” and the chain’s famous green logo altered to say “Starbombs Coffee,” and also a hand filling an iced coffee cup with liquid from a container marked “Poison.” Moshe, the man behind the account, told me that he’s endorsing the boycott because “Starbucks CEO wants to hire 10,000 Islamic refugees no thank you freedom of speech works both ways and on top of that Starbucks is horrible coffee unless you like burnt beans no thank you.” (He also told me he’s a “renaissance theologian samurai who would rather die than tell a lie.”)
One of the bigger names I saw active in the #boycottstarbucks tweets was alt-right superstar Mike Cernovich. “Starbucks is mediocre coffee, but as someone who enjoys long city walks, I am grateful for their clean restrooms,” he told me when I asked him for his thoughts on the controversies. “Starbucks plays left-wing politics and supports left-wing causes. They alienate their customer base.” When I asked him if he thinks it’s still possible for a company to just sell a product without alienating one side or another he said, “Taylor Swift plays it smart—stay out of politics. Note, however, that she caught a lot of drama for staying neutral.” Well, OK.
When reached for comment about why Starbucks has consistently drawn the ire of conservatives, the Starbucks PR team referred me to a statement by Howard Schulz at their most recent shareholders meeting: “If there is one message that I think I hope you came away with today, is that none of the things that we have tried to do as a company, which is based on humanity and compassion, is based on politics, but it's based on principle and our core beliefs, which I have tried to really outline very specifically.” Which sounds fine, except what is politics except the real-world manifestation of principles and core beliefs?
Starbucks is not alone in taking heat from activists in recent months. Alt-right stunts like #TrumpCup and #BoycottStarbucks may be the most absurd iteration of this phenomenon, but New Balance, Nordstrom, Uber, Pepsi (whose Kendall Jenner ad managed to offend both the left [when it aired] and the right [when it was taken down]), and Red Bull are just some of the brands that have been criticized.
Keeping up with the controversies can be a bit tedious, but I think they’re pretty understandable reactions to our heightened political climate. When so many people believe we are living in political end times, and that the other side offers an existential threat to their way of life, it’s natural for shoppers to not want to give money to a company they feel is morally repugnant. “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” the meme goes, but surely some consumption is even less ethical? I’d rather my money not support someone who actively attacks my core values, to borrow a phrase from Howard Schulz. At the same time, I don't really want to have to consider a CEO’s political views every time I go out for coffee.