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How Starbucks Hopes to Profit from MLK Day

By Nick Kipley

According to an article published by the Boston Globe in 2011, sales of the Frappuccino make up roughly a fifth of Starbuck’s revenue. Possibly to counter a reputation as a venue that makes 20% of its money in what are arguably just coffee milkshakes, Starbucks also offers a variety of products supporting the good cause:
a community bulletin board, inoffensive bestsellers about protagonists changing the status quo through championing a noble cause, bottled water that allegedly raises money for drinking water programs in Africa, and selected CD’s of eclectic music performed by top artists collaborating in an effort to raise money for famine relief, an end to human trafficking, AIDS research, a cure for cancer, etc.
This does a lot to corroborate Starbuck’s image as not just another fast-food-style chain selling beverages big enough to drown a cat in, but as a meeting place where social consciousness, community activism-and corporate altruism-flawlessly comingle.
Huge corporations like Starbucks, Apple, Nike, et. al have learned to market positions of selfless activism by painlessly co-opting figures from the “politically correct” canon. A recent, prominent example of this comes from an ad run by Starbucks in the New York Times which shows the alphabet sequence printed backwards in white letters upon a black background. Its letters “MLK” are highlighted in red.
Beneath this text, also in white font, made highly visible against a full-page sea of black, reads the call to action statement: “It’s time to look at things differently. Again.” Is this statement telling us that if we find ourselves arranged within a sea of hierarchical conformity, all we need to do is change the way the system is viewed in order to gain a startling new perspective? In this case, that perspective leads to some crackly, inner-speaker of pop-culture and history, which resonate with the words, “I Have A Dream.”
Displayed directly below this message is Starbuck’s logo. Thus, the only information we are given is that the largest coffee chain in the nation-who makes billions selling high calorie coffee milkshakes-shares the same beliefs as the greatest American civil rights leader of the 20th Century. Wait. What?
Not advertising anything but the Starbucks brand, the ad is still effective for the company’s PR; however, it really doesn’t do anything to champion Civil Rights or promote Black History Month or even to promote an interest in the work and life of Dr. King. It’s really just designed to get you to buy coffee without feeling guilty.
Not many would disagree with Martin Luther King Jr., but a lot of people have found an issue with Starbuck’s system of cheap labor which requires enlisting an army of part-time workers whose hours fluctuate week by week due to a piece of scheduling software which assigns shifts based on a mathematical logarithm that calculates each worker’s level of gross productivity.
Dr. King, speaking on April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York, warned against the sort of society in which coffee chains claim to be activists. Speaking of a world in which America came out peacefully from the Cold War (ours) he said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Ralph Walker of KGEM TV Monrovia claims that a genuine renewal in this side of the politics of Dr. King is taking place today, allowing people to separate the rhetoric of fast-food coffee from meaningful political messages that might bring about actual social reform. “What’s interesting is that people were more interested in embracing the radicalized side of king rather than the corporate side that’s been taken over and made, ‘all warm and fuzzy.’ He’s no longer just the guy who said, ‘I have a dream,’ and that’s it,” Walker explains.
Walker claims that the renewed interest in politics, especially in young people, has come from social media. But he warns that political activism shouldn’t be solely about promoting slogans on social media alone, “Social media has a tremendous impact because people can spread their opinion and their word. Social media is the young people’s daily newspaper. And it spreads like a fire; whenever anything happens positive or negative. Marching is good but you must march and have a plan. It’s not a pep rally for the big game. It’s a continuous battle for rights and equality.”
Walker says that Dr. King’s tends to be neglected until events like Ferguson set a backdrop for his message to be re-examined. “But this holiday, people wanted to hear his words,” he says, “King spoke of a three-pronged chair that America needs to get over: poverty, racism and war. When you spend billions on war, you don’t have money for poverty. When the final say is dictated by the dollar, the human factor is negated. Anytime you have the unequal distribution of wealth-that goes against the doctrines of Dr. King.”
If Dr. King were alive today, Walker is convinced that “Even at 84 he would still be marching; he would still be talking; he would still be engaging in civil disobedience because that battle still goes on.” Walker suspects that what King would be most adamant about changing today would be the current state of the education system, “If education is too expensive and there are no jobs that pay a living wage, then what do you do?” he asked, “That makes education a privilege not for the everyday person. If you have a low paying job, how can you get educated?”
Like anything, changing anything in a community requires its members, “To get out and get active.” Activism can be anything in which the community comes together to discuss its important issues. It isn’t limited to marching, but it also isn’t marketing. San Gabriel Valley residents who wish to get involved in their community are encouraged to join in the Pasadena Black History parade taking place 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Alkebu-Lan Cultural Center, 1435 N. Raymond Ave.


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