In our anxious times, the Starbucks red cup is a symbol of certainty

The time-worn disposable cup has been accepted as a cultural reference point rather than a coldhearted business strategy, conflating consumption with tradition.

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In November 2015, the evangelical Christian troll Joshua Feuerstein posted a video to Facebook “pranking” the global coffee chain Starbucks. Feuerstein had seemingly purchased a takeaway coffee from Starbucks at a branch in Arizona shortly after the annual rollout of its festive paper coffee cups – coloured red, with a cutesy Christmas motif. That year, Starbucks chose “a purity of design that welcomes all our stories”, so it could also market the cups to people who do not celebrate Christmas, and opted for minimalism; the red cups made no specific reference to Christmas. Feuerstein’s complaint? Not including the word meant the company “hates Jesus”. He attempted to trick Starbucks out of its political correctness by declaring his name was “Merry Christmas", thus forcing a barista to write the offending word on the otherwise secular cup (Feuerstein took his handgun into the store with him, just for good measure).

This year marks the 22nd time that Starbucks has released its festive cups, known colloquially as “red cups” (in fact, several of the designs are not actually red). Though Feuerstein’s trolling should be treated with scepticism, the video itself had 17 million views – an indication of the red cups’ cultural ripples. What began as a marketing gimmick has since become embedded in the cultural mainstream. Websites like Countdowntoredcups.com dutifully record the days, minutes and hours until the cups are released each year – their design is speculated upon and their release date teased then confirmed by tabloid newspapers. The freesheet Metro on Saturday solemnly reported that it is officially “red cup season”.

Starbucks has harnessed the excitement of Christmas and attached it to an object for sale. Though the company offers a “festive menu” that includes adaptations such as the “eggnog latte” (exceeding even “pumpkin spice” in abjectitude), the supposedly Christmassy taste remains private to the consumer. But the visual symbol of the red cup – always with the Starbucks mermaid in the middle – creates a unified brand for a season, and a comforting symbol of certainty.

Starbucks was founded in Seattle in 1971 solely as a coffee roaster. By the 1980s it was brewing its own coffee. By 2000, it had 3,500 stores globally. The brand became significant not only for the coffee it was selling, but for the connotations of its image. Paparazzi photographs from the late 1990s and 2000s show celebrities clutching venti lattes and sucking dutifully on caramel frappuccinos, faces shielded by enormous sunglasses. The takeaway Starbucks cup, white with signature logo, became the final prop in a covert snap of a Hollywood star walking down the street. The brand was synonymous with what the takeaway coffee represented: casual frivolity, on-the-go glamour; at once luxurious, accessible (at only $5), pleasurable – and disposable.

Starbucks’ connotations have changed since then. Its sophisticated status has been overturned; a “third wave” of coffee consumption marked the ascendancy of independent producers, artisanal roasts, and hipsterish drinkers who prized authenticity. Starbucks, a sprawling multinational, lost its charm: rather than the accessory of the whimsical LA celebrity, it became associated with mainstream, unthinking "basicness". After the 2008 financial crash, the company closed hundreds of stores. It made a comeback but was excoriated in 2012 following a Reuters report claiming the company had paid only £8.6m in corporation tax in 14 years, despite generating £398m in revenue. The glamour of Starbucks was no longer so casual: it had cemented its reputation as a corporate baddie.

The cult of disposable coffee cups has lost its appeal thanks to growing environmental awareness. Cups are lined with a layer of waterproof polyethylene that prevents easy recycling – meaning the majority end up in landfill. In 2019, most coffee vendors sell reusable cups for takeaway coffee and offer discounted drinks for customers who bring their own cup. Starbucks itself reportedly uses 8,000 paper cups per minute, but clearly recognises the negative PR: it offers a 25p discount for customers who bring their own, and in 2018 introduced an additional 5p charge for disposable cups. 

What the disposable red cups represent, just as the standard Starbucks cups did in the 2000s, is a thrilling sense of fleeting newness.Their disposability is part of their appeal. That they are only available in November and December not only nullifies the sting of the 5p charge and corresponding environmental guilt, but almost makes it sexy, a bit of a treat, naughty but nice.

The Coca Cola and John Lewis Christmas adverts, like Starbucks’ red cups, have similarly been silently accepted as cultural reference points rather than coldhearted business strategies, capitalising on a time of year that conflates consumption and tradition. And while it is the temporary, seasonal nature of the campaigns that appeal, our true craving is for their certainty. In search of certainty, we’re met by brands telling us what we should be doing and when – or what we should be buying, and where. We don’t have to decide what coffee to order because just the presence of peppermint mochas tells us we should buy them; we don’t have to decide how to feel because the presence of red paper cups tells us we should feel excited for Christmas. Though Joshua Feuerstein may have found the removal of the word “Christmas” offensive in 2015, it made no difference. A Starbucks cup says plenty.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.