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Starbucks’s red cup controversy, explained

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In a world filled with many items, there is none more divisive right now than the 2015 Red Starbucks Cup™. On the surface, it might look like a simple crimson container sized to hold either 8, 12, 16, 20, or 30 fluid ounces of the life-giving dark nectar we know as coffee.

But it's much more than that.

In certain pockets of the US, it speaks to something larger than the vessel from which we drink our hot, caffeinated beverages. To some, the naked red cup, unadorned with symbols like holly or snowflakes, is an affront against the Christian faith, a cut against Christianity. For others, it's a chance to beat their chests and scream about Christian and conservative stupidity into the faceless void of the internet.

The culture wars have come to disposable paper Starbucks cups.

Americans fighting over what is printed on a coffee cup designed by a billion-dollar company to promote conformity sounds like cold German satire: While the world rages on and problems like starvation, a massive refugee crisis, and homelessness remain unfixed, people in America — including an American presidential candidate — are arguing over a red beverage container.

But there's nothing satirical about this. The conflict over this dumb cup is so passionate that the original version of a viral "Starbucks' War on Christmas" video has more than 14 million views. It's also an unflinchingly real slice of American internet culture and the outrage machine that fuels it.

Here's what the Starbucks red cup looks like now and what it looked like in 2014

According to Starbucks, the holiday cup began in 1997 with a "jazz-themed design in jewel tones of deeper reds, greens and blues." Each year since then, the coffee giant's holiday cups return, and have become a corporate tradition in the process. The cups make the transition from plain white to holiday-themed in November; this year they changed over on November 3.

So here it is. Here is the source of all this pain, anger, and outrage:

The 2015 cup on the left; the 2014 cup on the right. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2015 cup (left) is obviously different from the 2014 cup (right). The shade of red is different (brighter!), and the cup doesn't have the pine tree print. Sear this image into your brain.

Why some Christians are mad about Starbucks's 2015 red cup

The evolution of red Starbucks cups

The fight over Starbucks's cup actually begins with a man named Joshua Feuerstein and a viral video in which he claims Starbucks can't celebrate Christmas.

Feuerstein, who looks a bit like Kevin James and whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Seth Rogen's, describes himself as an "American evangelist, internet, and social media personality"; his personal website touts his "Facebook fame" and internet success:

Feuerstein’s social media success led him to be the subject of a recent BBC Trending episode. In addition, he has hosted or been the guest on television and syndicated radio talk shows, such as TBN.

Feuerstein has a big Christian, conservative following, and as he'll probably tell you himself, he's good at making things that are popular on the internet. He frequently does this by harnessing the power of polarizing religious topics. In one of his videos, he attempts to dispel evolution, saying that it isn't a science.

Dear Mr. Atheist ... allow me to destroy evolution in 3 minutes! #SHAREifyouCARE #WOW

Posted by Joshua Feuerstein on Friday, May 23, 2014

That piece was shared more than 201,000 times and received more than 1.8 million "likes" on Facebook. But it's not just people who agree with Feuerstein's views who watched the video. The reason Feuerstein's videos are so popular is that many people disagree with him. One of the most "liked" comments in the meandering thread of responses to the evolution video comes from a guy who calls Feuerstein ignorant:

Feuerstein's new Starbucks outrage video might be the biggest of his social media career. It's a rant stemming from a conservative Christian belief that there is a "war on Christmas," and that each year during the holidays, Christians are persecuted by companies. The video, which Feuerstein posted on November 5, has amassed more than 14 million views.

Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus ... SO I PRANKED THEM ... and they HATE IT!!!! #shareUse #MERRYCHRISTMASSTARBUCKSFollow --> Joshua Feuerstein

Posted by Joshua Feuerstein on Thursday, November 5, 2015

Over the course of nearly one and a half minutes, Feuerstein talks about how Starbucks has caved to political correctness.

"Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups?" he asks. "In fact, do you know that Starbucks isn't allowed to say merry Christmas to their customers?"

But what Feuerstein's saying is a lie.

It's doubtful that Feuerstein had any input, insider knowledge, or consultation with the design team responsible for Starbucks's 2015 red cup or the coffee company's rationale for making the cup plain red. But he's wrong about Starbucks refusing to celebrate Christian holidays. If you peruse the Starbucks website, you'll find several pieces of merchandise that prove otherwise, including Christmas ornaments, an advent calendar, and "Christmas blend" coffee:

There's also a Starbucks "Christmas" gift card:


But Feuerstein's most blatant untruth, and the reason for all the current furor about the 2015 red cup, is the implication that Starbucks at one time printed the word "Christmas" on its holiday cups and is now being stifled or stifling itself from doing so. In the past six years, Starbucks, which doesn't identify itself as a Christian company, has never put the words "Merry Christmas" on its holiday cups — instead, it's used wintry and vaguely holiday-esque imagery and language, including ornaments that say things like "joy" or "hope," snowmen, and holly. Here are the cups dating back from 2009:

However, the fact that Feuerstein's assertion is false doesn't seem to matter to his followers, who've rallied around the video and helped it gain prevalence. The company has been a target of right-wing and Christian criticism in the past because of its support for same-sex marriage and its opposition to open carry firearms in its stores, even in states where it is legal. Meanwhile, conservative media outlets like Breitbart have weighed in, too, echoing Feuerstein's message.

"The Red Cups are now an anti-Christmas symbol, with Starbucks declaring their formerly Christmassy cups to be 'holiday beverages' and shedding any sign of Christmas from them," Breitbart's Raheem Kassam wrote in his provocatively titled column "Starbucks Red Cups Are Emblematic of the Christian Culture Cleansing of the West."

The protest eventually trickled its way up to American presidential candidate Donald Trump, who couldn't resist the opportunity to comment. "Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don't know. Seriously, I don't care," Trump told supporters in Springfield, Illinois, on November 9. "If I become president, we're all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you."

The design of Starbucks's red cups wouldn't be as big of a news story if the internet wasn't so predisposed to outrage

At any given minute, millions of stories are being shared online by millions of people. Those stories are as diverse as the people reading them, but there's one common reason we pass them around: They help define us. Sharing stories allows us a low-effort way to tell people what we care about, what we find funny, what makes us angry, and how smart we are. And plenty of Feuerstein's followers undoubtedly feel the same way he does.

But there are just as many people who hate-share his videos. If you search for "MerryChristmasStarbucks" (one of the primary hashtags for the red cup "controversy"), you'll find myriad posts by self-identified Christians about how dumb the protest is.

"I do have issues with #MerryChristmasStarbucks, though. Most of American Christianity’s blatant problems are exposed in this one excruciatingly real social campaign," Nate Lake, a Christian college student and soon-to-be Starbucks employee wrote in a blog post that's gone viral in the wake of the red cup kerfuffle. He continues:

Another reason #MerryChristmasStarbucks is everything wrong with American Christianity is its improper, miscalculated expectation of Christian values from a non-Christian entity. Simply put, Starbucks is not a Christ-centered company. That doesn’t make Starbucks bad.

There are also counter hashtags like #itsjustacup, and viral Instagram posts like this one denouncing Starbucks protesters:

A photo posted by Christian Watson (@1924us) on

Actress, Aries, and devout Christian Candace Cameron Bure has also weighed in, saying that the controversy is a non-issue. "Until Starbucks puts a baby Jesus or nativity scene on the cup while saying Merry Christmas, then pulls it because they say it’s offensive, let’s talk," she wrote in a wildly popular Instagram post:

Journalists have helped this backlash gain steam. "The phony ‘War on Christmas’ is back, fueled by those alleged Jesus haters at Starbucks," the Washington Post asserted; while Us Weekly opted for "Starbucks' Plain Red Holiday Cups Are Causing Outrage Among Christians," and Jezebel went with "Christians Angry Over Starbucks' Minimalist Holiday Cup Design." These are good headlines that compel you to click and make you a little angry, whether it's at the publication for being glib ("Jesus Haters") or at the Christians for overreacting.

The Starbucks controversy flattened Christianity into something easy to hate

Portraying the red cup protest as something that all Christians (as opposed to some Christians) are participating in makes the movement seem bigger and more connected to our personal lives than it is. The protest began in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian circles — a world that is foreign to a lot of Americans. But painting it as something that mainstream Christianity is actively involved in — even if this is not the case — suddenly makes it more immediate, urgent, and outrage-worthy.

The way news is shared on the internet has an indomitable way of flattening complex ideas into simplistic, easily digestible things. With this protest, the complex idea of Christianity has been compressed into a simple matter of people who are irrationally angry at a red cup. It's easy to see why people who identify as Christians would quickly share this story to announce that they're not like the people protesting. Meanwhile, for people who don't believe in organized religion, the story marks yet another instance of people acting dumb in the name of religion.

On social media, yelling about what we don't like defines us as much as the things we do like. The wicked irony of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram is that this backlash makes more people aware of the protest's existence. And as we saw during a recent racist Star Wars protest, the anger against the movement can amplify the original message to the point where it becomes a vast echo chamber of backlash.

It actually doesn't matter what Starbucks says about its red cups — we've already decided

On November 8, three days after Feuerstein's initial outrage video was posted, Starbucks explained why it chose a plain cup this year. The company explained that it went with an ombré design — the red is brighter on top and darkens into a shade of cranberry — as a nod to simplicity.

"Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays," Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks vice president of design and content, said in a statement. "We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it. It’s a more open way to usher in the holiday."

Though the company didn't cite Feuerstein's video, it did make a mention of how the company wants to be respectful of customers' religious beliefs:

Creating a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity is one of the core values of Starbucks, and each year during the holidays the company aims to bring customers an experience that inspires the spirit of the season. Starbucks will continue to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world.

And in perhaps a great moment of self-awareness, Starbucks invited its customers to imbue the red cups with their own stories (as many already have):

Taking a cue from customers who have been doodling designs on cups for years (Starbucks held a contest to support this creativity), this year’s design is another way Starbucks is inviting customers to create their own stories with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas.

But in reality, Starbucks was never in control of the situation. Once Feuerstein's video took hold, we all made up our minds about both the protest and the coffee company, bolstered by our own opinions (or lack thereof) on Christianity and political correctness. Starbucks says it wanted us to "create our own stories" — and we did.