Starbucks and the Power of Controversy

Many companies prefer to shy away from controversy when it comes around. The general manner of procedure, typically, is to try to make everyone happy so that you don’t alienate any possible customers. On this blog, we’ve recently written about the process of “taking a stance” in advertising, and why trying to make everyone happy might not be the best strategy. A real life example of this is the red cup controversy that Starbucks is experiencing. Here is how they have utilized this in a masterful way…


Over the years, Starbucks has used many different holiday designs for their cups. This year, they opted for a minimalist bright red cup with their trademark green logo in the center. This riled up one man, in particular, Joshua Feuerstein, an evangelical social media personality. He has a very large evangelist, middle-American following. Feuerstein used in social media standing to make a video calling Starbucks out for their lack of Christmas design on their holiday cups by ranting and raving about how they had been overrun by political correctness and were removing Christ from the holiday and their business.. The video played on the aging “war on Christmas” trope, reigniting it like reheating a Thanksgiving turkey on Christmas day. This video garnered 1.8 million likes on Facebook, and 14 million views, although you would think it had many millions more, due to the controversy it sparked.


Of course, the entire controversy is quite silly. All of this debate is over a blank red cup that will be thrown away after it is used. Indeed, it’s doubtful that even Feuerstein really cares, and instead was just doing his duty as a social media celebrity by trying to rile up his fan base and give them something to stomp about. However, the backlash against the video was much bigger than any support it may have had. People rushed to Starbucks’ aid, citing the absurdity of the video’s claims. This ended up creating a mountainous self-sustaining echo chamber of discussion. Overnight, it had suddenly become a political statement to go and get a lattè.

Cultural conversation

Currently, there are around 9.2 million stories online (and counting) about this issue. The importance of this kind of volume cannot be understated. During the holidays, it can be incredibly difficult to stay relevant, especially when every single company in this nation is trying to capitalize on the season. However, Starbucks has been talked about relentlessly, online, for weeks. There has been so much discussion about Starbucks and the issue that many people don’t even remember the video that sparked this whole debacle. Nobody remembers (or cares) about what was on previous Starbucks cups, but everyone knows, and will remember, the minimalist red design.

In closing

Mainly, this entire issue has shown us how easily the internet can cause the most absurd things to blow out of proportion. (The events in Paris are a reminder of how absurd it is to discuss a so-called “war” on Christmas when horrific violence continues to permeate our world). However, it also demonstrates the power that controversy can have in the world of advertising. This whole debacle was worthless to everyone, except Starbucks, who just received a surge of relevant advertising that money can’t buy.