Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An Unpatriotic Coffee Break?

Is it me, or does it seem like Starbucks can’t catch a break these days?

As the economy tightens, consumers are keeping disposable income closer to the vest—a practice that is taking a toll on the higher-priced Starbucks coffee chain. Hoping to nab some of these cost-conscious coffee drinkers, Starbucks rival Dunkin' Donuts began offering 99-cent lattes weekdays between 2 and 5 p.m. (The promotion started Oct. 1, and runs through Nov. 11.)

And two weeks ago, Dunkin' Donuts launched its “Dunkin’ Beats Starbucks” media blast. The campaign, which is based on results of a blind taste test among approximately 475 consumers, promotes that more consumers prefer Dunkin’s brewed coffee over Starbucks’ House Blend. (Besides television ads, consumers can visit www.dunkinbeatstarbucks.com to read about the experiment, learn about Dunkin' Donuts’ coffee, corporate promotions and services.)

But on Monday, Starbucks upped the promotional stakes. An e-mail blast and YouTube spot reminded coffee drinkers, “If you vote, Starbucks buys your coffee.” All voters have to do is tell a barista they voted today, and a “tall” cup of coffee is on the house.

The promotion certainly caused attention in my neck of the woods. It was a story on last night’s local news, and I—along with many of my friends—plan to take advantage of the offer.

However, not everyone was impressed by the ad. Election officials for the state of Washington got wind of the promotion, and told a local news station that rewarding voters with free coffee is illegal. More specifically, a federal statute prohibits any organization from “providing rewards for voting,” Nick Handy, director of elections, said in an article on kirotv.com, a news Web site that supports Seattle’s KIRO 7 television station.

To avoid any flack, Starbucks quickly changed the rules of its promotion. Rather than reserve free Joe for voters, Starbucks plans to hand out coffee to anyone who asks for a free cup.

I see the point that election officials made, but I also think they took the situation a bit too far. Not once did Starbucks plan to reward anyone for voting for a specific party. In my opinion, the only “swing vote” Starbucks might have hoped to reward today was a former Dunkin' Donuts supporter.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

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