Starbucks holiday red cup brews controversy on social media

For Starbucks, the annual reveal of its "red cup" is meant to signify that the holiday season is approaching. Instead, it's stirring up some controversy.

The iconic Christmas cup has featured several winter-themed designs since it first appeared in 1997. From minimalist snowflakes and hand-drawn reindeer to a winking snowman and decorative ornaments, each year the design is distinctive and different from the last.

This year's holiday cup design is simplistic: an ombre from bright red to dark cranberry. While some Twitter users have praised the minimalist design, others think the cups are a "war on Christmas."

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Several brands have used the red cup controversy, dubbed "cup-gate," to promote, advertise, and sell products.

The controversy has continued to brew as rival coffee shop Dunkin' Donuts released its own holiday cup this week. The Styrofoam cup features green holly leaves and the word "joy" written in red.

Although not explicitly a Christmas cup, Dunkin' Donuts' design has continued to fuel opponents of Starbuck's subdued cup.

Speculation arose on Wednesday that Dunkin' Donuts' cup was a direct response to the Starbucks controversy, however Dunkin' Donuts says that's not the case.

"For many years Dunkin' Donuts has served coffee in festive cups featuring the word 'joy' as part of our annual celebration of the season and holiday offerings," the company said in a statement.

Twitter users were quick to point out that neither the Starbucks cup nor the Dunkin' Donuts cup has ever had Christian symbols; instead, both brands have created winter-themed designs. This sparked the hashtag #ItsJustACup, which has been used more than 4,400 times in that last few days, according to Topsy.

"Starbucks" has been mentioned more than 474,000 times on social media in the last week and "red cup" has more than 61,000 mentions.

Still, there are some users of the social media platform who have opted to boycott Starbucks because of the cups.


Even Donald Trump weighed in on the Starbucks Christmas Cup controversy during a rally in Illinois on Monday.

"No more 'Merry Christmas' at Starbucks. No more," Trump said, noting that the coffee giant is among his tenants at Trump Tower in Manhattan. "Maybe we should boycott Starbucks. I don't know. Seriously. I don't care. By the way: That's the end of that lease. But who cares? Who cares? Who cares?"

Of course, he wasn't the only celebrity to join the fray.

Satirist Al Yankovic posted his own version of the Starbucks cup, mocking the controversy.

"The Oatmeal" founder and cartoonist Matthew Inman also chimed in.

Starbucks, however, maintains that its holiday cups were meant to be a blank canvas for customers to create their own stories, inspired by the doodles and designs that customers have drawn on white cups for years.

"In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs," Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks vice president of Design & Content, said in a statement. "This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories."

Joshua Feuerstein, a former television and radio evangelist with more than 1.8 million followers on Facebook, took to the platform to comment on Starbucks' new cups.

"Starbucks removed Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus," he wrote, asking followers to use the hashtag #MerryChristmasStarbucks and to ask baristas to write "Merry Christmas" on their cups instead of their names.

"I think in the age of political correctness we've become so open-minded our brains have literally fallen out of our head." Feuerstein said in his Facebook video. "Did you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups? That's why they are just plain red."

However, not everyone agrees with this notion.

In fact, some have pointed out that Starbucks carries a special "Christmas blend" coffee.

In fact, the company offers a wide selection of Christmas products including ornaments, Advent calendars, Christmas-themed gift cards, Christmas music CDs and Christmas cookies.

"I think it's a non-event from a traffic and stock perspective," said Will Slabaugh, managing director at Stephens, a financial services firm. "It's blown up on social media among a select group of consumers and non-consumers that likely won't change their habits."

— CNBC's Katie Little contributed to this report.