The world awoke to news that America's lingering racial tensions would soon be swept away in an ocean of flat white and bold black coffees. Starbucks, you see, will have its "partners" (employees) write "race together" on your coffee cup, so that you will stop being so racist. And that, as they say, will be that. Racism? No more. Did you not see the cup?
So is caffeine a hallucinogen? Is that what is happening here?
You may recall Starbucks's past attempts to Change the World by way of Writing Things on Coffee Cups and/or Creating Point-of-Purchase Displays. There was the "Create Jobs for USA" program that arrived in November 2011 (after job growth was back on the upswing). Buy a bracelet for $5, and that money goes to small-business grants. Starbucks estimated that it created 5,000 jobs. (Starbucks itself employs 200,000 people. Er, "partners with.")
More ridiculously, there was the "Come Together" campaign, aimed at reducing political polarization in Washington. In late 2012, it began by writing "Come Together" on coffee cups in the city, which promptly inspired zero partisans to rethink their views of the opposition. (That's our calculation; it might be high.) Then, during the government shutdown in October 2013, it delivered 1.5 million signatures to Congress demanding that the shutdown end. And it did, the next day! Because of Starbucks, you see, and not because Republicans were reeling from plummeting poll numbers.
This is what's known in 1980s hip-hop lingo as "believing the hype." Starbucks, like many other "corporate citizens," believes that its ability to create a self-replicating coffee-spouting business empire somehow translates into either having unique insights into the human mind ("people like coffee") or into how to persuade people to take action (like buying coffee). Overlay that with the still-in-vogue "let's make the world a better place through our capitalism" thinking (see Coke, McDonald's) and you get this immediately questionable idea.
The most ridiculous part of the new campaign is that it treats the very real problem of racial bias and tension as, at best, a peg for a marketing gimmick and, at worst, as something that can be waved away by simply thinking about it. Like most companies, Starbucks has a public articulation of its commitment to diversity. Unlike many companies, it actually has a program that aims to give business to minority- and woman-owned businesses. That program, still publicized but much more quietly, is the sort of thing that actually can help bolster job growth and help eliminate the racial barriers that exist in the business world. But it doesn't sell much coffee.
There are worse people in the world than marketers. There are worse groups of people in the world than marketers who are brainstorming with corporate executives. But, man, do they have some bad ideas.
At the very least, we can look forward to Tumblrs full of illegible renderings of "Race Together." Which will almost certainly be a function of Starbucks's partners recognizing just how dumb their jobs can be.