Rethinking Anarchism


Don’t Just Vote… Go to Starbucks, too
November 30, 2008, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , ,

Unless you’re some kind of leftist hermit (no offense, just sayin’), you probably heard that Starbucks gave away a free cup of coffee to anyone who said they voted on November 4th. I emphasize the word “heard.” Starbucks aired a 60-second commercial during Saturday Night Live the weekend before the election advertising the offer. Word spread like wildfire. Here’s the commercial, too be followed by some analysis…

It’s an incredibly effective piece of propaganda. The promotion itself was a stroke of genius for the company. On November 4th, everyone was talking about Starbucks at the polls, and everyone headed in for their free cup of coffee after voting. With this kind of an impact, you might be surprised to learn that Starbucks did not advertise on television or in the newspaper until Winter 2007. They were able to establish themselves as a national brand without recourse to the traditional avenues to consumers brains. Maybe this explains why they were so successful.

But there’s more to this than a stereotypical narrative of entrepreneurial success. The rise of Starbucks is a story about capitalism and culture. Starbucks is the most insidious of the multinationals because it’s own success depends on its ability to permeate the social fabric. The corporation must become part of the city, the “heart of the neighborhood,” as Howard Schultz likes to say. There you have it- corporate America at the heart of every neighborhood.

This is a disturbing notion. Whether or not you think Starbucks is a “good” company, the acceptance of one corporation at the “heart” of America culture has deep implications for the acceptance of corporate power in general. If we uncritically accept one multinational corporation in our midst, this implicitly destroys the potential for any deeper critique. Instead of losing faith in the corporate system in general, people will think that the other “bad” corporations just need to be “more like Starbucks.” What is at stake is the very ability to envision a life beyond capitalism.

So how does a corporation secure a spot close to a nation’s heart? Marketers across the US are wringing their hands over the new “cynicism” of the American consumer. Like heroin junkies, advertising executives are searching for a new vein to deliver their drugs to the consumer brain. Preferably, they want consumers to think that they are not being advertised to at all. The impulse to buy should appear in the consumer brain as if by immaculate conception; no one should know where it came from.

Instead of speaking directly to consumers, Starbucks infects the social medium with its message, and lets us do the work. Their advantage is that they have some 150,000 workers who they can command to tell customers about their products at over 15,000 locations worldwide. For most promotions, Starbucks puts its employees on the front line facing customers, and lets us do the work. They walk a delicate balancing act between heavy-handed coercion of Baristas to treat customers well, and allowing for the improvisation which is what makes human interaction unique.

Starbucks depends on tapping into the very core of what it means to be human, a part of society, in order to sell their product. In the case of the “Don’t Just Vote” advertisement, they captured the zeitgeist, creating a script that was copied and repeated by people across the country for a day, endlessly. Through a careful tactical intervention, they turned millions of people into ambassadors for their products.

Their success with this promotion illustrates both a weakness and a strength. Corporations are forced to insert themselves into the social medium, always trying to stay one step ahead of those of us who would delegitimize them and break their power. So how do we do this? We have to out-organize them. We need to build a movement. Movements are made up of the anonymous acts of millions of people. We need to give the public ways to participate in our cause– the Revolution. We need to enlist millions of people as  participants, not just as voters or consumers but as organizers of actions outside the officially-sanctioned forms of civic participation cynically encouraged by the corporations.

The corporations are afraid. Viral marketing will fail. They have brought about a crisis that free cups of coffee on election day cannot solve. It is up to us to put out another message: solidarity and direct action is the solution.

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