Why Do We Care So Much About Starbucks Cups?
On November 18, Tim Treadstone tweeted out a set of simple instructions to his 120,000-plus followers. Step one: “Go to Starbucks & tell them your name is Trump.” Step two: “If they refuse take video.” Treadstone—who self-identifies as a member of the so-called “alt-right” and recently tweeted “it’s a common fact the media is run in majority by Jewish people”—called his campaign "Operation #TrumpCup.” “I thought when Trump won, I might just wake up and America would be great again. Guess what it wasn’t,” Treadstone told the Washington Post.
Operation #TrumpCup was launched in response to the results of the election—more specifically, it was inspired by a viral video that appeared to show a Starbucks employee refusing to write “Trump” on a customer’s cup—but Treadstone’s protest was only the latest in a string of manufactured brouhahas centered on that ubiquitous cylindrical recyclable, the Starbucks cup. In March of 2015, inspired in part by protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the murder by police of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Starbucks debuted the immediately lambasted “Race Together” initiative—its name echoed the words baristas had been “voluntarily writing” on cups—which encouraged employees to engage customers in conversations about race relations, presumably in the four tenths of a second it takes to hand over a venti macchiato. (None other than the late Gwen Ifill, then co-anchor of PBS’s NewsHour, tweeted “Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”) In November of that same year, in a video attached to a Facebook post that has now been viewed seventeen million times, a man named Joshua Feuerstein urged Starbucks customers to give employees the name “Merry Christmas” after the coffee chain released red holiday cups adorned with the company’s corporate logo but devoid of religious imagery. This year, a week before the election, Starbucks released a limited edition green cup—Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz described artist Shogo Ota’s design, which features “hundreds of figures . . . embracing in one continuous line” as a “symbol of unity”—that many mistook for the holiday cup. Angry tweets ensued. Sad but true: Starbucks cups, like bumper stickers and clothing patches before them, have become a locus of political expression.
On The Hairpin, Zan Romanoff has written in defense of pettiness, of “the should-be-small things that actually consume the bulk of our conscious thought.” And it’s true: there are few of us so good that our days are not in part devoured by inanities, the small indignities that sting in part because we know we have better things to worry about. There’s a reason it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back, and not the 300-pound barbell.
Starbucks-cup-based protests are the epitome of pettiness at its worst: caring just enough to inconvenience, to discomfit, someone else. As more than one commenter pointed out during the #TrumpCup fracas, protests don’t usually involve giving money to the offending corporation, don’t usually involve brandishing one of its products in a hashtagged selfie. To which Treadstone responded: “This was never meant to be a boycott.” His words recalled Feuerstein’s. “Instead of simply boycotting,” Feuerstein announces in his video, “well why don’t we just start a movement.”
The tactic is a revealing one: these protests treat the coffee chain as neither a product nor a company, but as a kind of public forum. They imagine Starbucks, and its cups, as an unavoidable but potentially useful medium onto which a message may be projected, as if the sharp thrill that comes from hearing “Trump” called out in a crowded coffee shop, or the subversive pleasure that comes from seeing the president elect’s name scrawled on a coffee cup, might outweigh the fact that you’ve just given $4.15 to a company whose CEO endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Starbucks cups are inherently meaningless; or rather, all they mean is “I bought this coffee at Starbucks.” Too ubiquitous to signal a single political stance, the Starbucks cup is an accessory that testifies to disposable income and, depending on the observer, either a taste for the finer things or no taste at all, either bougie pretension or “basic” ignorance of coffee bean quality. That’s part of the reason that attempting to make a political statement with Starbucks cups is always going to fail: no one can agree what kind of statement the cups are making in the first place. If Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and his Trump-supporting customers can agree on one thing, it’s that they wish this weren’t the case. Democracy promises citizens that their opinions will be represented. Capitalism ensures that that representation comes at a price. Starbucks cups exist at the intersection of this intractable contradiction: Schultz believes that because his coffee chain is part of people’s lives, he can change how they feel; his customers believe that because Schultz’s coffee chain is a part of their lives, he should care how they feel.
Still: the idea of Starbucks as a public forum is less crazy than it sounds. The chain have started as a purveyor of artisanal coffees, but its ubiquity—there are over13,000 Starbucks-branded stores in the United States alone—means it no longer caters to a particular demographic. In the 19th century, townsfolk gathered around the cracker barrel; in the 20th, office workers flocked to the water cooler; in the 21st, we check our phones in line at Starbucks. And the fact that we’re checking our phones is crucial: in Starbucks, customers are presented with the opportunity to interact with people outside their chosen social circles; over and over again, they firmly reject that opportunity. It’s possible to read, into Operation #TrumpCup and #MerryChristmasStarbucks and “Race Together,” a desire to harness the underutilized communal space Starbucks offers in an increasingly virtual, increasingly atomized society. Possible and also depressing.