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The Great Starbucks Cup Controversy of 2015—Fueling the “War on Christmas” with Information Cascades

Each year, Starbucks releases a special edition cup design to commemorate the holiday season. This year’s cups are a solid red color and lack drawings or doodles of holiday designs as in cups past. While previous cup designs or markings, such as the Starbucks’ campaign in March where baristas wrote “Race Together” to spark conversations about race relations, have proven to be controversial, this year’s outcry over corporate America’s “war on Christmas” appears to be especially fueled by social media.

On November 5th, Joshua Feuerstein an evangelical activist who has previously gained notoriety for spreading videos full of incendiary remarks and topics ranging from how the “Christian holocaust has begun” to most recently, how Starbucks “hates Jesus,” posted a now-viral video explaining how he thought Starbucks was anti-Christmas and encouraged people to say their name was ‘Merry Christmas’ at Starbucks when they order a drink. As the linked Atlantic article, “The Insanity of the Starbucks Christmas Cup ‘Controversy’,” explains, this viewpoint is rather irrational. The article eloquently states, “Rhetorical bluster about coffee cups distracts from the real,  difficult questions of religious liberty and freedom of expression—including workplace hiring and discrimination, wedding-vendor services, or contraception insurance—and diminishes the seriousness of those questions by association”

As many would agree, the controversy is rather absurd and irrational. Yet the movement has gained many followers on various media outlets. A reasonable explanation of this would be an information cascade, with Feuerstein creating the first signal. We can apply this situation to a classic information cascade model. Consumers must decide whether they to support this ‘Cup Controversy’ or not. For simplicity sake, we can assume that everyone makes this decision sequentially. In addition, each person has private information which represents their true beliefs on the topic. An explanation of people who support the ‘Cup Controversy’ is that they are acting based on whether people before them have posted videos and social media posts (their signals). Logical beliefs would indicate that to patron a restaurant that you have a problem with to make a point is completely nonsense. As in many information cascades, this can explain why a large group of people are acting irrationally, because they aren’t following their own personal beliefs, but simply imitating the signals before them.




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November 2015