The Time Starbucks' Red Cups Stirred Up A World Of Controversy

It doesn't take much these days to stir up controversy, whether over a celebrity tweet, an off-hand comment from a politician, or another issue. The internet and social media have intensified public scrutiny on nearly everything, which will inevitably lead to debates on — in some cases — the most trivial matters.

People seem to be constantly on the prowl for opportunities to put forth their opinions on anything. Topics such as "should you bite or lick your ice cream?" or "does the person flying in the middle seat get both armrests?" are a couple that have started a large debate (via Mashable). The online dialogue that usually follows such discussions is mostly harmless and often comical in nature, yet sometimes the most inconsequential things can lead to an existential crisis for some people, who then feel compelled to defend their core beliefs and values.

As some of you may recall, Starbucks actually sparked such a debate through the design of one of its coffee cups. This was one for the record books: how something harmless can spark a frenzy when tossed into the hurricane of opinions that is social media.

No design = war on Christmas?

Since 1997, Starbucks has released a new cup each year in November, signaling the approaching holiday season (per NBC News). The design changes year to year, and we typically see drawings and symbols decorating the cups with ornaments, snowmen, reindeer, and kids sledding. In 2015, however, Starbucks released a plain red cup without any designs, which was intended to "usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories" (via Eater).

According to Vox, this outraged many who saw it as opposition to Christmas itself, which then fueled the fire on the idea that there was an ongoing "War on Christmas" in Western society. Joshua Feuerstein, a social media personality with a large following of conservative Christians, made a video titled "Starbucks' War on Christmas" that went viral, with nearly 14 million viewers as of 2016. In the video, he implies that by removing the designs, Starbucks is anti-Jesus. Others argue that the designs had nothing to do with Jesus (via The Washington Post). The debate stirred so much emotion that the former president, Donald Trump, weighed in, and during a speech, hinted at boycotting Starbucks.

Starbucks suggested that they were actually being more inclusive. They wanted the plain red cup to serve as an empty canvas for people to draw and create their own stories (per Vox). This idea came to them after seeing people doodling on their cups, and they wanted to invite creativity.

What's happened since the plain red cup?

Since the vitriol of 2015, it seems every holiday cup released by Starbucks fosters some sort of debate with strong opinions. The 2017 holiday cup had a drawing of two arms holding hands which sparked an intense dialogue about the gender of the two people holding arms and what might be the hidden meaning behind it (via Washington Post).

The 2019 cup had the phrase "Merry Coffee" and the 2020 cup had "Carry the Merry" next to the designs, which opened the wound for those who believed it was a continuation of the war on Christmas, with others arguing that this interpretation was absurd.

It seems unlikely we will ever get back to a time when we didn't attribute so much meaning to the now highly anticipated Starbucks holiday cups. Each year there will be those who will see it as a reflection of our society. But maybe we can try to get back to seeing what is actually significant about these little paper cups – the coffee inside!