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Grande Illusion

Starbucks wants you to know it sells more than coffee.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By KARI BARBIC
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Simon concludes his journey by looking at how Starbucks marketing appeals to its customers’ desires to promote global good. He refers to the appeal of “ethical consumption—buying to make a political statement, support the struggles of others, and build enduring challenges to authority.” Ethical customers are trying to make the world a better, more equal, place through the purchase of Starbucks fair trade coffee. The complaint regarding Starbucks practices here is not that they are not doing anything but that they are not doing enough—or worse, doing less than they would appear to be doing. Does Starbucks buy and sell fair trade coffee? Yes, but they should buy more. Does Starbucks improve the lives of peasant farmers in developing countries? Sometimes, maybe, we can’t be entirely sure; but they should be more vigilant and more generous. 

From the evidence presented by Simon, it is clear that Starbucks, through its marketing, appeals to the sympathies of the consumer while placing the profit of the company before the good of the world. Lesson: If you want to make the world a better place, look for a reliable charitable organization to donate to rather than buying a bottle of Ethos water. Or better yet, volunteer a day’s service to earn a free ticket to a Disney theme park.

While Simon makes some valid points regarding the feel-good, community image Starbucks sells, some of his material and interviews tend to be more obvious than revealing and can feel redundant. Of course, readers are at some point expected to see themselves in one of the Starbucks regulars that Simon studies. Perhaps you’re guilty of “treating” yourself to one too many Frappuccinos, thus illustrating society’s incessant need to self-gift, regardless of the economy and dire needs surrounding us. Or maybe you realize that you’re not the artistic individual you once presumed since several of the musical artists on your iTunes playlist you “discovered” at Starbucks.

My personal enlightenment? The concept of third places has eluded me. I realized my lack of interest in the community surrounding me when I read these words from one of Simon’s friends: “I don’t go to Starbucks to talk—I go to be alone.” Yes, I am guilty. I have gone to Starbucks many a time to sip a latte while studying alone, reading alone, or—perhaps when I wanted my alone-ness to be socially acceptable—writing in a journal alone.

Simon does admit in the end that most of these corporate “sins” do not make Starbucks customers bad people. And Starbucks is not an evil institution: It’s just not the global Good Samaritan we hoped for. The ones we should pity are those who allow Starbucks to deceive them by believing that, with every Starbucks beverage choice they make, they’re in partnership with Starbucks to do something good for earth and humanity.

If you are one of the enlightened few going to Starbucks just for the coffee—and only when you’re unable to visit your locally owned, environmentally friendly, community-focused coffee shop—you will not be deceived by the pictures of peasant farmers in Ethiopia. You will know that they are not living the opulent lifestyle of a corporate executive. You will look at the paper coffee cups and know that they’re made from only 10 percent recycled materials. And you will sip your venti Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino all the time knowing you could have had a Big Mac instead for less glamor and fewer calories.


Kari Barbic is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.




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