Politics, on Your Starbucks Cup

Why your coffee container looked different today

You see, all the people on the cup are sketched from a single line. Because unity. (Starbucks)

The first thing you should know is that it’s not red. Not at all—there’s not a crimson bow or background in sight.

The next thing you should know, though, is that the new Starbucks cup—the thing unveiled this time each year, traditionally as a be-cardboarded invocation of The Holiday Season—has nothing explicitly festive about it. This cup, contra previous years’ worth of Starbucks seasonal cuppery, features no ornaments. It depicts neither reindeer nor snowflakes nor snowmen nor softly aggressive exhortations to “pass the cheer.” There’s simply a lacily intricate line drawing of people, set against a backdrop of green—and against a backdrop of white, where the Starbucks logo would traditionally be.

The most striking thing about the cup isn’t its Where’s Waldo-y intricacy, nor even its explicit lack of corporate branding. Instead, it’s Starbucks’s explanation for the design of the cup—one that is explicitly, and self-assuredly, and actually just a little bit shockingly, political.

As the company explains it in its press release:

A single line connects the figures. A coffee farmer, a family, a barista, friends embracing. A mosaic of more than a hundred people drawn in one continuous stroke is featured on a new Starbucks green cup.

The new green cup is available exclusively in U.S. Starbucks stores starting today (November 1), for a limited time while supplies last…

Starbucks commissioned artist Shogo Ota to create the artwork. His threaded design represents shared humanity and connection, serving as a symbol for stitching people together as a united community.

And here’s how Starbucks’s chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz, explains it: “The green cup and the design represent the connections Starbucks has as a community with its partners (employees) and customers,” he said. “During a divisive time in our country, Starbucks wanted to create a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other.”

During a divisive time. Gone are November 1’s traditional cheery deer, and the jaunty snowflakes, and the apolitical (if still, yes, occasionally divisive) ornaments of years and seasons past. Here, now, is a Starbucks seasonal cup decorated with … civics. The worldwide conglomerate—the company that sells “third spaces” as well as cups of coffee, and culture as well as caffeine—just put, essentially, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on its cups. It brought politics into the holiday season—in the guise, of course, of transcending politics during this holiday season.

In some sense, certainly, that’s unsurprising. Starbucks has had a long—and, it should be said, awkward—history with political engagement. Schultz himself has been extremely vocal about political contests (he has called the campaign “a circus” and, also, publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton). He has angered gun-rights advocates when he asked guests not to bring firearms into Starbucks stores. And remember last year’s “Race Together” initiative, in which the company encouraged its baristas to discuss race relations with customers?

So here, in our hot little hands, is the logical outcome of all that: Even the holiday season, the thing that prides itself on eschewing differences in the name of “good cheer,” has been made explicitly political. (At least for a little while: There’s a rumor, based on a reddit leak, that more traditional red cups, complete with etched holly, will be issued right after the election.) For now, though, Starbucks has taken the logic of Chipotle’s cups and bags—the notion that cardboard can be a canvas for cultural conversation—and extended it to politics. The company, in the name of transcendence, printed the “divisive time in our country” right onto the vessels that millions of Americans, every day, carry on their person. It brought politics into its third space. Togetherness is a hard idea to argue with; still, it’s hard to think of a move, in the end, more opposed to “passing the cheer.”