Anti-Starbucks filmmakers hijack the coffee company’s own Twitter marketing campaign

starbucks stopOn Monday, the New York Times published a story detailing a multi-million dollar ad campaign launched by Starbucks in which the company put up advertising posters in six major cities and attempted to “harness the power of online social networking sites by challenging people to hunt for the posters on Tuesday and be the first to post a photo of one using Twitter.” Those who posted the pictures to the microblogging site were to use predetermined hashtags that were listed in the contest rules.

Unfortunately for Starbucks, liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald, founder of Brave New Films, came across that Times article early Tuesday morning. Greenwald, who has directed films for major studios and launched Brave New Films a few years ago, had been working for months on shooting an anti-Starbucks video that debuted on YouTube that very day. The mini-documentary features interviews with several former and current Starbucks employees and makes the argument that the company — despite popular perception that it treats its employees well — has unfair labor practices and has aggressively fought off union organizing.

“Tuesday morning was when we launched the video,” Greenwald told me in a phone interview. “I’m a very early riser, I get up at 6 o’clock here, and I look at the New York Times and there’s a story about this contest that Starbucks is having on Twitter. And I was like, ‘ah, what timing!’ So I sent an email around to several of my colleagues and we immediately jumped on it … When we saw that they had a contest, we immediately decided that we should enter the contest, which we did in very short order. And I don’t know if it’s connected or not, but a few hours later after we sent in pictures of people with suggestions for [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz to be more fair to his workers, I think the rules were changed and at least that phase of the contest was ended.”

starbucks protesterOn a blog post published at the anti-Starbucks website Brave New Films created, people were encouraged to take pictures of themselves in front of Starbucks stores holding signs targeted at the company’s “anti-labor practices.” These users are then told to upload these photos onto Twitpic and tweet them out to their followers using the hashtags #top3percent and #starbucks. According to the post, these are the official hashtags that were designated by Starbucks itself for those who wanted to enter its contest. Within hours, several people had followed these guidelines and there were dozens of Twitpics in front of stores across the country.

As of this writing, the anti-Starbucks YouTube video has amassed over 30,000 views and was featured on the front page of social news site Digg. Greenwald said that Brave New Films is not done with its offensive against the coffee company, but he was hesitant to reveal his next steps.

Given that the the filmmaker was able to take Starbucks’ own Twitter marketing campaign and turn it against it, I asked Greenwald what this means for corporations dipping their toes in social media marketing.

“Well it says that democracy is a wonderful thing, and that we should be very happy with it,” he replied. ” …I think that the corporations will learn very quickly that if they want to function in a social marketing arena, then they’re going to have to change some of their practices or else they’ll have to get out.”

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  1. Albert Maruggi Says:

    When you say “change some of their practices” what do you mean? Change the way companies use social media? or change the practices that some people feel are unjust?

  2. patmcgraw Says:

    Democracy, I thought, was the ‘rule of the majority*’ not the rule of a few that can scream the loudest and cause the most commotion. And I guess that’s what has always concerned me about social media…the fact that the few can appear to have it their way at the expense of the majority.

    Then again, I am sure that this “big win” had a negligible impact on sales at Starbucks so perhaps the loss of a contest is interesting but isn’t all that big a deal?

    Oh, and though I would have been interested in viewing Greenwald’s video on Starbucks, this little episode makes me wonder if the video is really about the oppressed Starbucks worker or Greenwald’s personal gain at their expense. That said, I won’t be watching the video – and wasn’t that really Greenwald’s motivation for screwing around with the contest?


  3. Paul Anthony Says:

    One word. Skittles. Its time major brands learned that they can’t control the social media conversation – and the crowd does.

    Even if they’d censored this – there probably would have been as much if not more uproar.

    As Greenwald says “democracy is a wonderful thing”.

  4. Matt Says:

    “Democracy, I thought, was the ‘rule of the majority*’ not the rule of a few that can scream the loudest and cause the most commotion.”

    Heh. You must be new here.

  5. Ozzy Says:

    “That said, I won’t be watching the video – and wasn’t that really Greenwald’s motivation for screwing around with the contest?”

    Heh. I’ll watch it.

  6. Raul Ramos y Sanchez Says:

    Great reporting, Simon. Your post is journalism, not commentary.

  7. Brad Says:

    Awwwww… Howard Schultz, an entrepreneur who put a large amount of money into a company and risked his livelihood on it makes a lot of money and his employees don’t? Sad…

    This man built a giant corporation from the ground up, and when popular opinion says that employees are treated fairly well, it is usually right. There are a few exceptions, but Starbucks is not one of them. I have had many friends who work at their franchises and none have ever complained about unfair employment practices. Stop whining because good businessmen make a lot of money and worry about something that actually matters. I am sure there are plenty of unemployed people in this country who wish they could work at Starbucks.

  8. Greg Says:

    Schultz is the one who convinced the masses to pay $4 for a 50 cent coffee.

    Being a “barrista” requires no more talent than woking at McDonalds.

    Feel free to open your own shop if you think you can.

  9. Paul Says:

    Random tangential thought: if a marketing campaign on Twitter is so easily thwarted by a small group of people, then maybe in the long run it cuts off the channel as a viable real marketing channel.

    That may or may not be a bad thing, but it does threaten a possible revenue for Twitter if they’re looking for one.

    On the other hand, if Twitter go a Facebook Beacon kind of route where their users are merely pawns for gathering demographic data, they risk losing users’ trust.

  10. John Grabowski Says:

    Take any company, and it is easy to find former employees who are happy to complain about their former employer.

    A cup of coffee at Starbucks doesn’t cost $4 – it costs me less than $2 for a 16 oz premium coffee (which I would much rather drink than the coffee available elsewhere).

    I don’t believe in Unions.

    I know Starbucks employees, and their compensation, benefits, etc are better than they would be if they worked similar positions elsewhere.

    Greenwald seems to be someone who likes attention.

  11. Craig Says:

    Amazing how many corporate shills came out here to defend Starbucks. Thanks to Stumbleupon I will be watching this YouTube video that I might not have ever heard of.

  12. Michael Tangeman Says:

    this speaks directly to the fallacy of the “social media is a tactic” argument that one hears from many marketers.

    social media is a platform via which a community communicates and the more open the platform, the more anything can happen.

    if one chooses to join the conversation, one has to expect that somebody is going to talk back and sometimes say things one doesn’t want to hear!

  13. Rob Says:

    You know what I do if my employer isn’t treating me well … and it’s happened more than once … I quit and find another place to work that’s better.

    Well, one time I quit and started my own business, but it was too hard so I went back to work for an employer.

  14. Felipe Budinich Says:

    “this speaks directly to the fallacy of the “social media is a tactic” argument that one hears from many marketers.”

    Theres a problem with marketers, since most of them are just like art critics, their statements are based on case studies instead of real experience. (of course this is pointed at bad marketers and bad critics)

    Social media IS a tactic, when properly used by small businesses, because small business owners can make decisions on the spot, and large corporations have a great deal of inertia.

  15. Hap Holiday Says:

    How about a new class of user: “shrills”?

    It’d apply to those who label as “shills” anyone who deigns to defend a company.

    Honestly, we need a “Godwin’s Law” for the assertion “shill” because it immediately kills any worthwhile discussion on a topic in an Internet forum in the same way the term “Nazi” kills any discussion.

  16. Elemental Says:

    Workers intending to stay at a company for an extended period or to make a lifelong career of a job often have no choice but to unionize. The barista at Starbucks changes each time I go in for overly expensive and burnt tasting coffee. These aren’t union jobs, these are summer jobs, temporary positions. The United Baristas and Coffee Roasters, Local 123, would just make it more expensive.

    And we just don’t have the spirit of solidarity (the heart and soul of any union) anymore. My union sells out each chance it gets, throwing the younger members and their futures under the bus to make sure the older members get a better retirement.

    I’m sorry that Schultz is a putz, but he’s a putz with a company he grew from nothing. Until being overpaid is a crime, that’s his privelege.

  17. Dave Says:

    This isn’t really any different than a local news crew filming a small protest that appears large when aired on the evening show.

    A small group of folks can get attention (and even have influence) in several different media. Add Twitter to the list.

  18. Shadow And Act Says:

    Isn’t Starbucks representative of most corporations, especially those its size? This is simply capitalism in operation.

    Look closely at any corporation’s records and I’m sure you’ll find some degree of unfairness, whether to employees or customers.

    Not that I don’t appreciate the efforts of people like Robert Greenwald, because I really do. But I feel like Starbucks is just one of so many, and it really isn’t about the companies that operate within the system, but the system itself that should be targeted. As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game…

  19. aplink Says:

    caution must be observed when launching a project in social media – i tripped myself in error recently… but the reality is what someone sees as a positive others may see as negative – its who’s head u are wearing on the day… But i like to say these days – Social Media Breaks the Rules – beware which way the rules get broken :-)

  20. Russell Cross Says:

    Kudos to Hap Holiday for the word “shrills” – I like it! The logic of the shrill is as follows: X is bad/wrong/evil; you support X; therefore you are bad/wrong/evil. Or put another way; anyone who supports X is, by the fact they support it, a “shill” and therefore should be ignored.

    Come on, Craig, this is rhetoric 101.

  21. Bill Cole Says:

    The free market is the most democratic institution on earth. Everyone votes with their dollars and everybody wins.

  22. Bill Cole Says:

    Oops! Everybody wins, that is who sells a good product or service at market price. Inefficient businesses or those who utilize unscrupulous or unethical business practices lose. … unless the government bails them out.

  23. Alper Says:

    In any case this is a nice piece of Web 2.0 aikido. Using big corporations’ force against them.

  24. Sean Says:

    Pat MCGraw says: “I won’t be watching the video.”

    Yea, you stick with that kinda thinking Pat. You wouldn’t want your mind accidentally opened or anything. And you might want to stay away from books while your at. If your not careful, you might accidentally stumble across a broader definition of “democracy” — gasp!

  25. Lauren S Says:

    “Schultz makes millions – workers make beans”

    Okay then. Luckily, this is America. Those workers making “beans” are more than welcome to go out and spend blood sweat and tears to start their OWN successful coffee chain with locations on every single corner and make their own millions!

    There’s a reason these idiots are standing behind a counter all day serving coffee to yuppies. And that’s the reason they’re getting paid “beans.”

  26. MM Says:

    I don’t really understand the premise of this protest – I think the problem isn’t so much Starbucks, it’s employment laws skewed to help big business and not a stable society.

    People should be lobbying the government to raise minimum wage and legislate that employers must provide benefits. Lobbying Starbucks who are (presumably) operating within the law doesn’t seem relevant – I bet McDonald’s also pays similiar “beans”. And Burger King. Etc.

    That’s just capitalism. For an enlightening if depressing read on this I recommend “The Corporation”. Companies like Starbucks exist to raise money for their shareholders, and nothing else really – as crap as that is for society.

    It’s why oil companies screw over the environment when the law doesn’t prevent them, because all they are legally required to do is make money.

    For a successful campaign, you have to pick your target. This was a great way to bring media attention to the issue and subvert a marketing ploy, but I am not sure it will achieve its aim.

  27. Jeff Says:

    Wow. Such a diversity in viewpoints. I could only hope to get such intelligent engagement on my blog – except I don’t have a blog yet. (You can find me @jjsararas though.)

    I’m a bit amused that only a small % of commenters seem to actually share the values of this Greenwald fellow, but instead used this story as a platform to spark a broader (and dare I say more useful) discussion, and many of whom it seems have simply outgrown the need to be anti-anything. My peeps!

    No, what really strikes me as important about this experiment is how it is transferable to the issue of the quality and integrity of a company’s products, services and support. I’m excited and encouraged that, with the rapid sharing of experiences made possible by social media, companies are not going to be able to continue manufacturing throw-away products, and deem hour-long waits for support (for the junk you bought that doesn’t work/connect/operate as it’s supposed to) as acceptable.

    I’ve held out for quality and honesty in business for a long time, and I’m a little excited at how the pseudo-democracy of Twitter can serve those values in an unprecedented way.

  28. Joanna Pena-Bickley Says:

    Great post. Its simply breathe taking that Starbucks launched this effort without the expectation of good and bad press. A large portion of Word of Mouth is Public Relations. I suspect a proper social media plan with immediate threat / resolutions was left out.

  29. Jim Reppond Says:

    Everyone has warm fuzzy feelings for the small business person who struggles and works hard to create success.

    But God forbid they succeed and become rich. Because then they instantly become evil in the same people’s eyes.

    So hypocritical it’s sad.

  30. Dave Says:

    I notice only that it says they’ve fought organized labor, not that they treat their workers poorly or underpay them.

    If this post is a forum to educate people about Starbucks practices that deserve changing, it’s a failure.

  31. Jeannie Says:


    This is only one reason why I will NEVER buy a new car, especially one that is American-made.

    Union goons’ intimidation techniques are well-known, and not just a part of ‘history’… as is known how the hard-working employees who are extorted to pay dues whether they want to be in the union or not have no say as to where their money is spent; whether on Union officials little vacation junkets, ostensibly for a ‘secret vote’ or ‘important meeting’, or on greasing the palm of some oily politician who is another slimeball on the take from the unions to vote the way that will strengthen their position and suck more from the American economy like the leeches they are.

    Exhibit A: Obama and the UAW and GM…

    Unions can go jump into the deepest lake in the world over in Russia… where they actually might NEED a union…

    Oh, and I was the wife of a union worker… the union SUCKED! It sucked it’s members (forced – my husband and other of his co-workers never WANTED to be in the union, they were FORCED) dry for their union dues and then, when there WAS a strike, only paid them $36/week in strike pay, when my husband walked the picket line on a graveyard shift in winter. The strike pay didn’t even cover our electric bill.

    Oh, and I will be posting this opinion on our local newspaper’s website as well. Don’t like my opinion? Then I guess you’ll be working hard with Obama to rescind my 1st Amendment rights, along with my 2nd Amendment rights and many others…

  32. Jeannie Says:

    Dave in Comment #30, kudos to you!

  33. Jeannie Says:

    Kudos also to all those other posters who see through this idiocy and the attempt to further erode the basis on which this nation was founded!

  34. Carver Says:

    Jeannie, the history of unions is far more complicated than you state, and you come across as silly as the people one-sidedly bashing a corporation as an evil machine. Not everyone who is pro-union is pro-every-union-no-matter-what. Unions become bloated and rather than representing the interests of workers in general come to defend their members or themselves at the expense of others.

    Secondly, all the palm-greasing a union does is nothing compared to what corporations do (the numbers are staggeringly in the favor of every industry when compared to that industry’s unions), and while I agree on principle with the inappropriateness of it, it would be stupid and counter to their aims (good or bad) not to play politics.

    Furthermore, all the rights we enjoy in this country as workers we owe to unions. Corporations are entitities that exist for one reason and one reason only: to make money. There is no reason for them to insure safe working conditions, pay fair wages, or obey any law or concept of morality whatsoever unless their is a threat to their profits. This isn’t prejudice, this is fact. Thus, for every benefit we derive from them should be also approached with a healthy skepticism as to their methods for improving our lives.

    There is nothing necessarily bad about this, but it is ridiculously naive to believe “voting with our dollars” always works; the rules a corporation has to play by, the resources available to them, and money spent to alter/impress consumer opinion and create an image all leave the individual at a disadvantage. Beyond that, it privileges those with more dollars with more power. If that isn’t contradictory of the democratic values this country was founded on, I don’t know what would qualify.*

    As for unions being the driving force of inflation, I can’t help but laugh. Such an over-simplification betrays ignorance to the highest degree of economics. At least I have the good sense not to open my mouth on something which I do not fully understand.

    *Note: I don’t buy into ridiculous hegemonic ideas such as this, but when in Rome . . .

  35. john Says:

    Good job, I have been drinking coffee for 35 years and Starbucks regular coffee taste like shit now their coffee milk taste good cold but still over priced. If you could smoke there they could sell coffee for $6.00 a cup

  36. Jeff Rutherford Says:

    I thought this blog post was very interesting. It highlights a communication issue that many companies will be faced with – How to Respond via social media when disgruntled customers hijack your promotion, marketing campaign, or contest?

    I wrote about how Starbucks could have responded on my blog –

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