Is any single household object as inconspicuously ubiquitous as the red plastic drinking cup? That unassuming 18-ounce chalice of moulded crimson polystyrene appears perched on every nightclub bar top, littered across the lawns of every outdoor music festival, stacked in every suburban kitchen cupboard, clenched in the firm fists of every polo-shirted undergraduate and sweating, yawping fraternity brother. The red cup is a tailgate mainstay, a cookout staple, a fixture of dinner parties and keggers; it's synonymous with flip cup, with beer pong, with debauchery and merriment and revelry. There isn't a college campus in North America that isn't teeming with them. The red cup isn't simply popular. It's attained the currency and reach of a universal brand.
The brand itself is called the Solo Cup Company, a disposable plastic goods manufacturer founded in the mid-1930s in the American midwest and acquired, in 2012, by the Dart Container Corporation. The red Solo cup—only one of the company's products but by far its most recognizable—was introduced to the United States in the 1970s, as what Rebecca Bikoff, a brand manager at Solo, describes as "a time-saving solution" for the hosts of domestic social functions. The cup can furnish an event with inexpensive glassware that at the end of the night can be disposed of rather than washed and put away. "It became popular with consumers straight away," she explains. "A lot of that derives from convenience. It minimizes clean-up and maximizes the quality time a person hosting a party can spend with their family and friends."
Bikoff wasn't certain why Solo elected to make cherry the cup's standard hue—though the attraction is pretty apparent. Red is well-liked. It's gender-neutral. It's striking, splendid, distinctly intense; it's what an expert in marketing would call an "emotional" color. "It makes sense that consumers would gravitate to this color when you think about the kind of occasions it's used at," says Bikoff. Still, in the interest of variety, Solo does offer the cup in a number of alternative colors from cobalt to canary. And over decades the classic cup's design has been refined: its base has been squared to improve balance, ribbed grooves now line its sides for a sturdier grip.
Of course the virtues of a plastic cup will be obvious to anyone who's tried to serve drinks to more than a half-dozen people simultaneously. But why the Solo cup specifically—why this iconic ruby throwaway, as opposed to any other sort of receptacle? Bikoff credits the brand's associative power. "It's just associated with happy times," she says. And indeed there's research to back this up. "We did some focus groups a couple years ago and listened to folks talking about our products. One of things we universally saw is that when you put the product in people's hands, every single one of them has a smile on their face. People have a very strong emotional connection to these cups. We're helping them create memories. We're on the table. We're part of the party. Maybe we're not a catalyst for the party—but we're always a guest."
You can understand how the Solo cup's ubiquity may be partly self-perpetuating: thrifty collegiate drinkers are drawn to the cheap bulk beer vessel for self-evident reasons, then retain their affection for the product as they reach an age of more dignified get-togethers. Though the company itself is quick to emphasize the latter contingent of its demographic-spanning fanbase—and understandably so. "Binge-drinking" is not a connotation any sensible company would actively court. "The last thing any brand wants is affiliation with excess," says Dustin Brown, a partner at advertising agency Elemental in Toronto. "And yet these things take on a life of their own. If trends emerge and evolve that's a good thing on the usage side. But from a brand perspective it gets a little dangerous when you get into the world of excess drinking."
Which puts Solo in an interesting position. They don't want, as a socially conscious, family-friendly company, to cultivate or encourage the idea that Solo is the cup of choice for keg stands, black-out drunks, or underage parties,even if they do happen to be the cup of choice for those activities. But it's hard to dissuade people from using your product in a way that's proven decidedly lucrative. Brown likens the dilemma to one faced several years ago by Smirnoff: whether to embrace or renounce "icing." Icing began as a sort of nationwide practical joke: the object was to fool a friend into catching a glance of a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, which, if accomplished, would impel said friend into consuming the bottle on the spot in its entirety. For one very boring summer getting "iced" became a ludicrous but inescapable trend.
"Icing was not a positive thing," Brown says. "People weren't icing one another because Smirnoff Ice is so refreshing. It's disgusting. The trend began precisely because people didn't like the taste of it." Naturally Smirnoff would prefer its customers actually enjoy the beverage they've worked so hard to make. But no company wants to turn down sales. "The point is that people were buying Smirnoff Ice. If you're the brand manager in that situation you just sort of back away slowly. You don't endorse it—but you enjoy the ride as long as it lasts." So it is with Solo. The association with hard boozing is incredibly strong: Toby Keith wrote an ode to the cup. College movies are routinely overrun with the receptacle. Girls dress as Solo cups for Halloween. The company's frat house market is flourishing. How could Solo say no?
Solo's present ad campaign seems a canny effort to split the difference. The brand's new slogan is "Up For Anything"—a wisely bet-hedging phrase that suggests the possibility of hedonism without inviting it outright. "In the advertising, whoever is viewing it can see it from their point of view," says Bikoff. "People are allowed to see 'Up For Anything' in their own life. If you mostly spend time with your family at home, you may see it as good times with your family. Another person might see it as good times at the pool party." Yes, and yet another might see it as the dare to go streaking through the quad, or to hit the backyard for impromptu mud-wrestling, or as motivation to down a twelfth pint nearing dawn. (When college students say they're up for anything, they really do mean anything.) The sort of ambiguity afforded by "anything" is exactly what Solo needs. The all-night rager can continue unabated—while the family man can set red cups on his table comfortably too.
Calum Marsh is on Twitter.