What’s Behind the Starbucks’ Christmas Cups Row?

On the 5th of November Joshua Feuerstein, a former pastor and self-identified “American evangelist, internet and social media personality” from Arizona[1], posted on his Facebook profile a video[2] in which he complained about the new plain design adopted by Starbucks for its new Christmas cups, and called for people to protest against it. By removing Christmas season symbols, Feuerstein argued that Starbucks has distanced itself from Christmas and Christianity, and therefore “hates Jesus”. This is not the first time that he has used similar arguments. Last February, for example, he criticised Instagram for having purportedly blocked a comment he posted[3]. This time, however, his video not only grabbed the attention of Facebook users, with more than sixteen million views, but also received a wide coverage from national and global news media[4]. The Washington Post was amongst them, and originally reported the story in its online edition on the 9th of November with an article by Justin Wm. Moyer titled “Starbucks ‘removed Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus,’ Christian says in viral Facebook video”.[5]

By focussing on this article, I will analyse the factors that made this story newsworthy and question whether this could be an example of dumbing down of journalism or is actually conveying a democratic function and satisfying the needs of the readers. To do this it is necessary to understand the background of the story and what the author selected and made more salient (Entman 1993).

The article is structured as a story, as it defines how the world should be seen and interpreted, with a punchy “anecdotal lead” and a structure adopting a narrative pattern (Bird and Dardenne 2009, pp. 207-209): a first stage where the conflict is presented; a second stage in which a clash ensues and the author develops the arguments of each side; and a third one in which the journalist tries to find an epilogue by analysing the facts and giving a judgment.

Specifically, this is a story about the way religious issues are viewed and lived in America, and Feuerstein acts as the main frame. Even though Moyer makes clear that this is not a one-man story – he begins by talking about “some Christians” – he clearly identifies Feuerstein as the prominent guide of this “movement”. By focussing on the person and his character, the journalist adopts a “personalization schema” (Mazzoleni et al. 2003, pp. 226-227), which is used to identify the individual with the issue at stake and make him more noticeable. This identification can also be inferred by the fact that the only source used to support Feuerstein’s stance looks more an endorsement of the person than of the cause, while the voices against his campaign were diverse and mixed.

To understand what lies behind the story, it is also necessary to look at the bone of contention. The fact that the new Starbucks’ campaign has been the object of the action shouldn’t be read as a contingent event, but as an attempt to advance a broader political stance. As Bryant Simon (2001, p. 150) points out in his analysis of boycotts against Starbucks, consumers are looking for “alternative venue for politics” and as result they have shifted “their political focus from the electoral arena to the market”, hitting big companies. This action, therefore, has to be placed in the context of a wider mobilisation strategy undertaken by Christian right movements to support their causes (Blee and Creasap 2010).

While Feuerstein embodies the ideologies and values of these movements, Starbucks epitomises the shift towards a liberal and secularised society. The company in fact has supported the government’s efforts to reform the health care system[6], advance gun control measures[7], allow same-sex marriage[8], improve race relations[9], support environmental issues[10] and back pro-choice positions[11].

Starbucks’s campaign was the fitting casus belli. By “generating controversy”, the former pastor was able to attract the attention of the media and meet their expectations (Mazzoleni et al. 2003, pp. 14-15). This is made clear in his viral video, where he calls the “Americans and great Christians around this great nation” to share it and “make it go around the world”. With a simple but effective clip and a sensible use of social media, he was able to catch the attention of the Washington Post. The question that now arises is what are the factors that have let this event pass through the process of news selection.

Firstly, the article involves “conflict” (O’Neill and Harcup 2015), since – as it was explained before – the story moves around a controversy. “Entertainment” is another ingredient of the recipe. Moyer’s story, in fact, hinges on “personification” (Galtung and Ruge 1965, pp. 68-69), a factor that was considered by O’Neill and Harcup (2001, p. 278) as part of entertainment because it concerns human interest. Moreover, it is not only Feuerstein’s persona that contributes in making the story engaging, but also the way the journalist develops a humorous narrative around it, for example by punning “silent story” with the Christmas song “Silent Night”. While these elements were added by the reporter, they contribute in the distortion process by accentuating the peculiarities of the story and making it newsworthy (Galtung and Ruge 1965, p. 71). This observation may be reinforced by the analysis of Allern (O’Neill and Harcup 2009, pp. 166-167), who considers entertainment and popular taste underlying factors in news selection and packaging, and thus elements that satisfy audience and market demands.

“Shareability” has also a major role. First of all, the social media have made the phenomenon visible, hence an event. Secondly, they have contributed in the selection of the story: in fact it contains an element of gratification – entertainment – that may lead people to “be involved in discussing, gossiping, and making fun of persons and issues that were reported”, and in doing so sharing it (Lee and Ma 2012, p. 333). This is also evident by looking at the content of the most read articles on the Washington Post website[12] and at the growth in its readership[13] – particularly young readers[14].

Other values, which belong to the journalist’s professional values and are related – as Golding and Elliot have showed – to audience, accessibility and fit, can also contribute to understand why this event was chosen. Among them brevity and proximity appear to be relevant to this story (O’Neill and Harcup 2009, pp. 165-166).

The first one can be evinced by looking at the event itself: a one-minute video, few factual elements and very “little padding”. This is also reinforced by the fact that the journalist prefers to keep the story simple by not mentioning, for example, Feuerstein reference to gun control. Likewise, proximity, and particularly the degree of accessibility of the event, contributes in giving value to it. Indeed Starbucks is a well-know brand with a widespread presence in America, and Christmas season is an established religious and secular tradition in the American culture: the combination of these two elements makes the story familiar and close to both the author and its readers

All these factors have cumulatively provided value to the story and consequently have made it newsworthy (Galtung and Ruge 1965, p. 71). The last question to be answered is whether this is an example of dumbing down or an attempt to meet new demands.

Even though the article appears to be written to face market pressure, thus shifting to values that are more focussed on quantity (i.e. growth) and standardisation of content (Franklin 2005, p. 145), it can be argued that it is not simply another form of “infotainment” but a move to use a suitable content and style that can meet people’s taste (McNair 2009a, p. 72). Firstly, the article reports about a relevant, although veiled, issue – i.e. the religious radicalism in America. Secondly, the wide-ranging readership of the Post has to be taken in consideration, along with its goal to reach mobile readers, who require content that is suitable for their devices[15]. Therefore to meet these demands the information couldn’t have been conveyed efficiently using a different form of journalism, for example an in-depth and articulated analysis, but required an accessible style (Franklin 2005,  p. 142).

Moyer had to write something that could grab the attention of all the readers of the Morning Mix – one of the most popular section of the website[16]. To do so, he had to build a narrative that could be contemporarily easy to follow and share, and accurate. Almost all facts were reported and, although Feuerstein’s action made the story newsworthy, the ideas and values he represents are clearly identified, along with the relevant arguments made by his critics. The last part of the article eventually analyse the position of Starbucks and tries to look at its official position in an unbiased way. He attempts to read along the lines and gives in an unassertive way a judgment by using a simple language, effective rhetoric devices and citations.

Consequently, this shouldn’t be seen an example of dumbing-down, but of “breaking down the notion of a single, clear and defined public” (McNair 2009a, p. 51) and writing a piece of journalism that is aware of it.

In conclusion, the story is not a limited debate on a purported crusade against Christmas. It’s an analysis on the cultural rift rooted in the American society that tends to manifest itself with these phenomena. Most of the time such stunts are carefully planned to capture the attention of the journalists, who select and emphasise them according to the mentioned news values. The article seems to be a proof of this. Moyer had to craft something that could attract a multi-faceted readership, with different cultural and social backgrounds but certainly not “dumbs” (Temple 2006, p. 271), and to keep up with market pressures. Moyer has succeeded in the journalist’s objective to inform (McNair 2009b, pp. 238-239) by reporting a newsworthy story in a punchy and lively way. Call it “infotainment”, but it has worked.

 

[1] Joushua Feuerstein 2015. About Josh [Online]. Arizona: Joshua Feuerstein. Available at http://www.joshuafeuerstein.com/about-josh/4585043155 [Accessed on 6 December 2015]

[2] Joshua Feuerstein 2015. Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus … SO I PRANKED THEM … and they HATE IT!!!! #share Use #MERRYCHRISTMASSTARBUCKS [Online].  Menlo Park, CA: Facebook. Available at https://www.facebook.com/joshua.feuerstein.5/videos/689569711145714/ [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[3] Joshua Feuerstein 2015. SHOCKING … INSTAGRAM HATES JESUS! Watch this video as they block my comment and then try it yourself!!!! SHARE if you believe in FREEDOM OF SPEECH! [Online]. Menlo Park, CA: Facebook. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=582099308559422&set=vr.582099308559422&type=2 [Accessed on 6 December 2015]

[4] According to a literature research done on Nexis (Nexis.com, 2015. Nexis [Online]. Available at: http://nexis.com [Accessed on 6 December 2015]), using the search terms “‘Feuerstein” AND ‘Starbucks” and looking at “All News, All Languages” between November 5th and November 25th.

[5] Moyer, J. 2015. Starbucks ‘removed Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus,’ Christian says in viral Facebook video [Online]. Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/11/09/starbucks-removed-christmas-from-their-cups-because-they-hate-jesus-christian-says-in-viral-facebook-video/ [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[6] Starbucks Coffee Company 2009. Health Care [Online]. Seattle: Starbucks Coffee Company. Available at: http://www.starbucks.com/assets/4302038cd4b0439aa77b51a38d872263.pdf [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[7] Starbucks Coffee Company 2013. An Open Letter from Howard Schultz, ceo of Starbucks Coffee Company [Online]. Seattle: Starbucks Coffee Company. Available at: http://www.starbucks.com/blog/an-open-letter-from-howard-schultz/1268 [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[8] Starbucks Coffee Company 2015. Starbucks Applauds Supreme Court’s Ruling on Marriage Equality [Online]. Seattle: Starbucks Coffee Company. Available at: https://news.starbucks.com/news/starbucks-applauds-supreme-courts-ruling-on-marriage-equality [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[9] Starbucks Coffee Company 2015. What ‘Race Together’ Means for Starbucks Partners and Customers [Online]. Seattle: Starbucks Coffee Company. Available at: https://news.starbucks.com/news/what-race-together-means-for-starbucks-partners-and-customers [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[10] Bicep 2015. BICEP Members [Online]. Boston: BICEP. Available at http://www.ceres.org/bicep/about/member-directory [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[11] Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo 2015. The following employers offer matching gift programs and may match your Planned Parenthood: Shasta-Diable contribution. Concord, CA: Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diable. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130513091535/http:/www.plannedparenthood.org/shasta-pacific/files/Shasta-Pacific/Matching_Gift_Employers_PPOL.pdf [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[12] Washington Post, 2015. The Most [Online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/themost/ [Accessed: 6 December 2015].

[13] WashPost PR, 2015. Washington Post newsroom memo highlights new readership records [Online]. Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/pr/wp/2015/04/17/washington-post-newsroom-memo-highlights-new-readership-records/ [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[14] WashPost PR, 2014. Washington Post digital growth continues; Readership hits 42 million in September 2014 [Online]. Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/pr/wp/2014/10/10/washington-post-digital-growth-continues-readership-hits-42-million-in-september-2014/ [Accessed on 6 December 2015].

[15] WashPost PR, 2015. Ibid.

[16] WashPost PR, 2015. Ibid.

 

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