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In the Corporate Cult Wars, Starbucks' Secret Weapon Is Backfiring

Corporate coffee for the people, or something.

This is a real thing: Starbucks baristas in the Washington D.C.-area are now being forced to write the words "Come Together" on coffee cups as part of the massive corporation's corporate Come Together initiative. This is supposed to help with the United States' current "fiscal cliff" crisis, a set of laws that will automatically go into effect on New Years Day, cutting spending and increasing taxes indiscriminately and at draconian levels. So, as a congressperson, seeing some scrawled message on a Starbucks cup should warm your cold, uncomproming heart and you and your colleagues across the aisle can come to some agreement to derail said laws before they burn everyone.

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According to the Atlantic, a lot of baristas are just not doing it--presumably, because it's way dumb and a pain in the ass. Before I start slagging the Starbucks initiative in full, I'll just point out that people are complaining about not getting their Come Together™cup of coffee, whether or not they're a U.S. congressperson. Maybe that's more a function of the modern human species aversion to being left out of consumery things.

This would be pretty easy to toss to rot in the bin of bad ideas, but it's just the beginning. Starbucks is partnering with AOL's "hyperlocal" blog network Patch to promote it via social media, advertising, and editorial content, which is just super-ethical journalism-wise. Here's the idea as outlined by Patch CEO Jon Brod in a memo to employees, as reported by Jim Romenesko.

We expect this to be the first in a series of Patch and Starbucks initiatives giving consumers the opportunity to write messages and create drawings on Starbucks cups to express their opinions on significant topics facing our country.

So the likely possibility is that the Starbucks corporation collects up the best sloganeering by its customers, prints it on some cups, and distributes those cups in D.C., though probably beyond. Or less likely, it's just literally customers writing on new cups or cup sleeves and Starbucks shipping them off. That seems … problematic. Anyhow, the memo goes on:

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We expect this to be the first in a series of Patch and Starbucks initiatives giving consumers the opportunity to write messages and create drawings on Starbucks cups to express their opinions on significant topics facing our country. We will then send the cups to Washington so that lawmakers can understand how people in communities across the country feel about these issues, and to initiate action.

I guess Patch is just tasked with promoting this? Or maybe the blog network will have some hand in crowdsourcing the messages. Dunno. I suppose part of the partnership is making the whole thing seem like less of a fumbling, cynical corporate misfire than, like, a broad populist movement. Just a guess.

A quick final note on that cynicism and fumbling. This really seems to miss the nature or intented nature of the relationship between congresspeople and constituents, which is regional and not designed to work in the random person-to-random congressperson way this seems to imply. And there are actual existing ways to communicate with congresspeople that are far from perfect, but aren't participating in a clueless and so far cringingly trite corporate mediation scheme that supposes that the chain coffeshops of Starbucks are suitable earpieces for the declarations of citizens or vehicles for protest.

Starbucks surely would like its customers to think that it is providing some great public service here, though it's really just a poorly concieved attempt at adding itself as an intermediary. The creepiest thing about this, I think, is that Starbucks is assuming that this is neccessary or even appropriate and that people are voiceless without the company's help. Politicians, if they patronize Starbucks, will listen to a cup and not emails or polls or picketing or votes. Or maybe I'm just reading too deeply.

At the very least this seems like something Mr. Burns would come up with.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv