Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 


Starbucks is waging a war on Christmas.

You mean you hadn't noticed that your barista is armed, angry, and atheist?

Many people have, thanks to a Facebook provocateur named Joshua Feuerstein. He espied that this year's festive coffee cups seemed to have all the festiveness of a beige wall in a children's funhouse.

He made a little video, in which he suggested the world's most famous coffee chain "wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups. That's why they're just plain red."

His video has been viewed more than 12 million times. These Seattle apostates must be stopped. How dare they? Etc., etc., etc.

Starbucks hasn't ever had Jesus on its coffee cups. It has, though, been more obviously Christmasy in the past. There have been pretty patterns with greenish colors. There have been Christmas trees and ornaments. I remember reindeer, too.

It's all been more clearly a reference to a holiday that has certain defined, enjoyable symbols, even if believers and nonbelievers look at them very differently.

For its part, the Seattle company seems to have been caught unawares by its new apostatus.

It took to its blog to explain that no, no the new design was supposed to be all about allowing customers to doodle on these cups that aren't entirely (socialist) red, but "a two-toned ombré design, with a bright poppy color on top that shades into a darker cranberry below."

When I read that, I realized that Starbucks had fallen foul of one of business's cardinal sins: designer-talk.

I remember once sitting in a meeting and encountering the greatest designer-talk of all. A beautifully dressed designer explained to me in slightly patronizing tones: "Green is the color of reading." Quite.

When I first set eyes on the new Starbucks Christmas cups, I had--being merely human--only one thought: "Gosh, they're dull."

As I chatted about life and injustice with my personal baristas--Marie and Kurshina--I wondered just how much deep brainpower had gone into creating something that was, um, red.

Yes, I missed the ombré. Shameful of me, I know. But it was first thing in the morning.

However, I wondered if, when Starbucks launched the cups on November 1, it explained that this plainness was all about giving its customers the freedom to doodle away.

Helpfully, the company wrote a couple of blog posts at the time.

In one, its vice president of design and content, Jeffrey Fields, offered some gorgeous designer-talk: "The ombré creates a distinctive dimension, fluidity, and weightedness."

That was the second thing I thought when I saw these plain red cups: "Heavy."

Fields also added, however: "In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs. This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories."

I couldn't find any mention of doodling. Nor was there in the post on the day of launch. Could this, then, have just been more designer-talk? Or could Starbucks have been making a sociopolitical point?

This wouldn't have been the first time. Earlier this year, the company wanted its baristas to discuss race with customers.

The only clue came from the last sentence of the festive cups post: "Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays. We're embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it. It's more open way to usher in the holiday [sic]."

So was the idea to get people to doodle exciting things? Or was it to merely preach peace and goodwill to all mankind?

It was only when the controversy began to brew that Starbucks made up its mind. Of course, it took another blog post.

In this one, there was much cutting and pasting from previous posts (including the typo above). However, the company insisted that of course this was all about doodling.

It said: "Taking a cue from customers who have been doodling designs on cups for years (Starbucks held a contest to support this creativity), this year's design is another way Starbucks is inviting customers to create their own stories with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas."

So there.

The company added: "Starbucks will continue to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world."

I have no doubt this is so. I also wonder if, had the intention been to get people a-doodling as they went a-caroling, Starbucks might have been clearer about that thought at the beginning, so that the excitement of the defacement could have begun in earnest.

Personally, I walk into Starbucks in the morning to feel slightly better than in the five seconds before I walk in.

With these cups the brand made me feel, well, nothing.

Now, then, Starbucks. About those tasty pumpkin scones you've just discontinued.