A Whole Latte Coffee Karma

At Connecticut and K NW, good Samaritan Debbie Harris falls for the cup-on-car-roof trick  --  part of a Starbucks promotion.
At Connecticut and K NW, good Samaritan Debbie Harris falls for the cup-on-car-roof trick -- part of a Starbucks promotion. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kenny Fried is cruising down K Street in his black Camry while drivers honk their horns at him and pedestrians wave their arms frantically, yelling, "You got a coffee cup on your car!"

Fried ignores them. He's more interested in the guy with the cigar in his mouth and the Bluetooth doodad in his ear, who's just staring blankly at him, saying nothing.

"Look at that guy!" Fried says, amazed. "He totally ignored us!"

His partner, Carter Bentzel, rolls down her window to talk to a lady who's pointing at the coffee cup that's stuck to the roof of the car with a magnet, saying, "You left your coffee on your roof!"

"Actually, it's not real," Bentzel explains. "But thanks for being a good Samaritan."

She hands the Samaritan a $5 coupon for coffee at Starbucks. And the Camry with the coffee cup stuck on top moves on to more excitement down the road.

There are two ways to look at this whole wacky coffee-cup-on-the-car-roof thing. You could think of it simply as a clever promotion for Starbucks, the coffee company that seems bent on conquering the known world one street corner at a time. Or you could see it as a study of human nature, a test of whether the modern urban human will pause to help a stranger who left a coffee cup on his roof.

In other words, it's an inquiry into the cosmic question: Is the coffee cup of human kindness half full or half empty?

Bentzel, 35, a perky blond marketing manager for Starbucks, is a cup-half-full kind of gal. "It's so much fun to see people's responses," she says, "their concern for other people."

Fried, 48, a balding local PR man working on the Starbucks account, is more of a cup-half-empty kind of guy. He's amazed at the people who don't respond. "This guy's definitely got the look," he says, watching a sour-faced man. "He's thinking, 'I just don't have the time.' "

This coffee cup ruse is part of Starbucks's "surprise and delight" program, Bentzel says. It was first tried last year in New York, then it moved to Los Angeles and now it has arrived in Washington.

Yesterday morning was a perfect time to study how Washingtonians would respond. It was rainy and nasty, and people trudged through the downtown streets huddling under umbrellas, heads down, shoulders hunched, looking miserable. How would they respond to a car with a coffee cup on the roof?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company