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Journal of Consumer Culture

11(2) 145–167
Not going to Starbucks: ! The Author(s) 2011
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Boycotts and the

DOI: 10.1177/1469540511402448

out-scouring of politics

in the branded world

Bryant Simon
Temple University, USA

Focusing on boycotts of Starbucks over last decade, this article looks more broadly at
the current states of buying and civic engagement in the United States and abroad.
Contrary to what Robert Putnam argues, at least in part, in his now classic text, Bowling
Alone, this article suggests that, as formal electoral politics have lost their hold on many,
citizens have not abandoned trying to change things or making their voices heard.
Instead, they have increasingly expressed their ideas about everything from local affairs
to foreign relations at the point of purchase – through in this case, not buying a widely
recognized product to gain a say in the larger distribution of social power. ‘Open
brands,’ ones that are sensitive to consumer desires, have, in turn, responded, produc-
ing a kind of ‘rough democracy of buying’ by offering political solutions to win or retain
customers. In the end, however, the evidence suggests that while pursuing political
power through (not) buying makes sense and reflects broader changes in the neoliberal
world, this strategy of engagement, nonetheless, had severe limits. The stories of
Starbucks boycotts show that consumer actions are easily co-opted by the marketing
prowess and deft moves of multi-national brands and by the notion held by some
consumers that (not) buying is enough as a study of these boycotts also points to a
new way of seeing buying not so much as politics themselves but a stage in the process
of politicalization.

boycotts, civic engagement, consumption, politics, Starbucks

Just after 11pm on a warm June Seattle night in 2001, Aaron Roberts went out in
his mother’s white Cadillac and never back home. The twenty-seven-year-old

Corresponding author:
Bryant Simon, Temple University, 4630 Osage Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19143, USA
146 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

African American man was headed to a convenience store where he cashed a lot-
tery ticket worth thirty-eight dollars. Pulling out of the parking lot, he cut across
three lanes of traffic and got pulled over by two white police officers. Words were
passed. A shot went off. Roberts ended up dead at the scene from a blast to the
Reverend Robert Jeffrey had a life-long relationship with Roberts. While the
minister conceded that the dead man wasn’t a saint, he wasn’t he said a bad kid
either. Jeffrey was pretty sure, though, that the Seattle police didn’t care about this
background. When they saw him, they saw a young black man, which meant, he
suspected, they thought they saw a criminal. When you thought like this, Jeffrey
insisted, you shot first and covered up later.
Reverend Jeffrey called on city leaders to change the way the police operated.
But how, he wondered, could he get them to hear his pleas? Seattle police had shot
other black men, and black folks had protested; yet nothing changed. Over the
years, Jeffrey led marches, registered voters, and pushed for more opportunities for
black businesses. But still, he believed, the police shot first and talked later. How
could he change things? This time he would try something different. He called for a
boycott of Starbucks.
‘Huh?’ responded many in Seattle and around the country. Why Starbucks?
What did the company, famous for its local charity work, commitment to diversity,
and environmental programs, have to do with Roberts’s death or the police? Jeffrey
and his allies answered: ‘We’re not asking them [Starbucks] for money,’ a Jeffrey’s
associate explained. ‘We’re not saying they haven’t done things for the community.
All we’re saying is that as partners in the community, they have a corporate respon-
sibility to demand police accountability.’ He continued, ‘We’ve protested. We’ve
marched. We’ve begged. We’ve written letters. What else is there for us to do?
We’re asking the people who control money to support the people.’ Jeffrey echoed
this point: ‘We are tired of begging. We are citizens of this city, and if we don’t get
what we want, we know how to get it.’ He added on another occasion: ‘Since our
votes are not getting us what we need, we need to see if where we spend our money
can.’3 Clarifying the boycott’s logic, Jeffrey explained, ‘These corporations drive
public policy, and politicians are in the middle. And just dealing with the poor guy
in the middle doesn’t cut it anymore. We’ve got to start dealing directly with the
corporations that want our business.’ (Jennings, 2001; Verhovek, 2001).
Jeffrey spoke to a larger dynamic taking place in the US and around the world,
what the historian Dana Frank would see as an attempt at ‘democratic control of
the economy from below.’ Historically, she argues, consumer actions increase when
politics lose traction, or in other words, when men and women don’t feel as though
elected leaders are responsive to their needs, and even more, when elected officials
don’t have the power to make a difference. ‘Boycotts,’ she explains, ‘fill a void
where there aren’t social democratic regimes’ (Frank, 2003). Certainly, the sense of
not being heard fueled Jeffrey’s Starbucks campaign and suggesting that the cur-
rent state is one of these moments when people don’t think politics is responsive.
Yet the minister’s boycott hinted at an even more far-reaching shift in power
Simon 147

that numerous scholars have noted (Barber, 1995; 2007; Bennett and Lagos, 2007;
Lury, 2004; Klein, 2000). As brands reach deeper into daily life, they have usurped
local, regional, and even national political authority. Sensing this transfer of power
from the government to corporations, which is a hallmark of the emerging global
neo-liberal order, protestors have decided to focus on brands rather than on policy
makers to get things done. In keeping with this change, it is almost as if citizens
have out-sourced their politics from the voting booth to the supermarket.
The path that Reverend Jeffrey took from formal politics to consumer politics,
what Bennett and Lagos would call ‘logo logic,’ is similar to the one that anti-sweat
shop, fair trade, and other activists have embarked on in recent years (see also
Banet-Weiser and Lapsansky, 2008; Micheletti 2003; Bennett and Lagos, 2007;
Klein, 2000; Lury, 2000). It reflects what we might call ‘a rough democracy of
buying.’ In the current economic moment, brands don’t just manipulate desires;
they deliver what one corporate official calls ‘customer preferences’ (Food Inc.,
2008). These preferences, as any marketer knows, extend beyond product tastes,
colors, and other attributes to the ideas surrounding the goods and how a company
acts in the world. Still the emergence of, and limits of, this rough democracy of
buying still needs more attention – more attention to its texture, range, scope, and
especially its timing.
In her study on breast cancer research, Samantha King has linked the rise in
charity work, and by implication cause marketing, to the emergence of neo-
liberalism and the privatization of public functions (King, 2006; see also Simon,
2009). As government institutions seem less effective in the face of corporate power
over the last decade, many have turned to the realm of buying to express their
political concerns and desires. These are not, however, new politics. The political
concerns expressed by buyers are, it needs to be pointed out, rather traditional.
There is nothing new, for example, about the black community’s opposition to
police brutality or about progressives trying to alter US foreign policy. Through
their consumer actions, shoppers are attempting to shape policy and be heard in the
corridors of state power, recognizing that even if formal politics have lost their
traction, access to government and broader structures of power still matters.
In other words, this does not represent a Bowling Alone like retreat from politics,
but a shift in venues.
More specifically, these boycotts of Starbucks show the depths and level of
contemporary consumer engagement in politics. It is at the point of purchase,
helped by the easy and inexpensive connections that can made through social net-
working and other new media rather than the voting booth, that citizens are, these
days, expressing how they feel about the exercise of state power and the pursuit of
justice. Sensing this, brands have stepped in to fill the void left by nonresponsive
political parties and government agencies, offering solutions to problems that, in
the past, governments handled. But this has created a new tension. As brands have
become more political – to win customer allegiance in our rough democracy – they
have become, at the same time, more vulnerable to political attacks. So they must
increasingly manage politics. To understand the contemporary realm of political
148 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

engagement, we need, therefore, to understand what people are saying to

brands and what brands say back. This is one of the most dynamic forms of
political expression today. Yet it is not without some inherent constraints because,
in the end, brands are for-profit corporations, not NGOs or partisan political

Thinking about civic engagement and the politics of buying

Gloom hangs over the scholarly literature on contemporary citizenship. Political
scientists and social theorists bemoan declining levels of political, and more speci-
fically electoral, participation. According to Robert Putnam and others, political
and civic engagement, as measured by voter turnout, union membership, commu-
nity activity, and other forms of democratic participation, have been on the decline
for the last several decades. Many blame this political version of bowling alone on
distrust of politicians and on the political system for unfairly responding to the
needs of the few ahead of the many.2 According to a recent Pew survey, for
instance, more Americans now doubt the equity of the electoral system than at
any other time since World War II, including right after Watergate. Discouraged
and disgusted with the state of things or disengaged because of their move to the
suburbs and their retreat into the private, citizens, the various stains of this liter-
ature suggests, have basically stopped playing the political game. (Putnam 2000;
The Pew Center for the People and the Press, 2010).
Despite a fair amount of scholarly attention paid to anti-sweatshop campaigns,
brand backlash, cause marketing and green buying (Eikenberry, 2009; Lury, 2000;
Micheletti and Stoll, 2007), most sociologists and historians of buying portray
consumerism and the ideology it spawns as the problem (see for examples
Barber, 2007; Ritzer, 2007; Klein, 2000; Lasch, 1991). They see the rise in political
disengagement, to borrow Zybmunt Bauman’s term, as a kind of ‘collateral casu-
alty’ caused by the onslaught of consumerism (Bauman, 2007). As the forces of
buying and selling spilled into every corner of American life, they narrowed – this
line of thinking suggests – conceptions of citizenship. Politics, like consumption,
became about me, about how something or some policy created immediate and
material benefits, not about the larger community. What these scholars would say
is that the culture of consumption bred a relentless individualism that cut against
the grain of engaged citizenship. As Wendy Brown puts it: ‘The body politic ceases
to be a body but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers’
(Brown, 2003).
Historians of buying, however, have made clear that this wasn’t always the way
consumers behaved. In her account of the rise of the 20th consumer’s republic,
Lizabeth Cohen charts the history of consumer activism. In the 1920s and 1930s,
shoppers used their market muscle for expressly political ends. Housewives called
on the government to make sure that corporations produced safe foodstuffs. Trade
unionists urged supporters to buy only the ‘union label.’ Later in the 1960s, activ-
ists warned consumers about cars unsafe at any speed and the waste associated
Simon 149

with non-stop buying. Essentially agreeing with Cohen, historian Matthew Hilton
argues in his book about global buying, that the consumer protests of the
past pointed out ‘the inequities in the system of manufacture and distribution’
and mobilized buyers to make a larger political point. This, he and Cohen
would say, has changed in recent years and for the worse. The politics of buy-
ing these days are rarely tied to on-going political movements and do not typically
raise questions about the system itself. According to Cohen – and here she sounds
like Wendy Brown – they are about individual choices, the right to the lowest price
and to the greatest number of possible variations of products (Cohen, 2003;
Hilton, 2010).
Yet this article suggests that consumers over the last decade are practicing an
alternative and not necessarily more narrow model of politics. This newer practice
of politics is a byproduct of the rise of global brands, the opening up, at least
somewhat, of the media through internet and social networking, and the attendant
neo-liberal era and the shrinking of the state. Still, it needs to be recognized, that as
layered and imaginative as this new realm of politics can be, it is hard for it to build
lasting coalitions and link up to larger political structures, in part because these
institutions are seen as unresponsive from the start. This means, though, the pol-
itics of buying are frequently co-opted by the very brands they are trying to get to
act. However, the move to cooptation can, in turn, create challenges for brands,
which by nature, want to build broad audiences. Once companies engage politi-
cally, they open a door. They cannot always control the politics – and desires – they
are trying to tap into and exploit. That produces a fascinating ‘backdraft’ in the
rough democracy of buying.3
In their recent and important book, A New Engagement, Cliff Zukin et al. have
challenged some of the gloomier assessments of current political participation and
civic life. ‘We argue,’ the authors state in the introduction, ‘that citizens are par-
ticipating in a different mix of activities from the past.’ Based on survey data and
interviews with thousands of Americans, they assert that ‘[a] significant segment of
the public eschews voting and campaigning and concentrates on civic activities
such as volunteering and community solving. . . and even through their choices
as consumers.’ While these authors point to a new engagement in the consumer
realm, they devote almost no attention – 10 pages out of 300 total pages – to this
aspect of contemporary politics. Still, the arguments made by Zukin and his
co-authors are a good place to begin to rethink the state of current political engage-
ment (Zukin et al, 2006: 3) This is also the place to bring Reverend Jeffery back into
the conversation. Like him, many consumers are trying to inject themselves into
policy discussions, saying despite the prevailing lines of argument in the literature
on disengagement, government action and public issues and policies still matters to
them. But they are doing their talking as buyers because, like Reverend Jeffrey,
they think conventional electoral politics do not work, and that power lies not
exclusively or even predominately with the state any more but increasingly with
the corporation. Indeed, any assessment of a ‘new engagement’ with politics –
again, by this, I mean a rather traditional version of politics focused on policy,
150 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

laws, and diplomacy – must recognize buying as a dynamic site of the making of
political ideas and of contests over state power. Increasingly, conversations about
the social good are not going on at candidate forums or at political rallies or on
Sunday morning talk shows, they are taking place at the point of purchase. The
marketplace has, then, in many ways, as Sharon Zukin suggests in her book on
shopping, replaced the older public sphere of electoral debate. By buying some-
thing, and especially by withdrawing purchases, consumers make themselves heard,
and thus show their continued engagement in the public. Through their market-
place activities, buyers say what they think, laying out their visions for justice, and
explaining how they imagine a fair and equitable society. They also talk about their
place in the matrix of power – in who controls things and who makes the ultimate
decisions (Zukin, 2004: 28–34, especially page 32). Consumers like Reverend Jeffery
try, furthermore, to use companies as levers to talk to others in the marketplace,
but also to speak to elected officials and diplomats. As they do, they comment on
the state of the things. Several other factors have made buying an increasingly
important site of political discussion. Big money and big media now so thoroughly
dominate elections that only a few voices are heard. At the same time, however,
new media and social networking opened up the dialogue, allowing still more
voices to be heard. Often they directed their political activities to the place where
the entrance into the game was widest and the targets – brands – were more
responsive than the increasingly calcified formal political system. Yet as vibrate,
and even democratic, as the new political realm of buying is and can be, it has been,
like any public sphere, marked by limits and constraints.
This essay looks at the political realm of buying in recent years through the case
of Starbucks. The focus here is on Starbucks not because the company is unique, as
it likes to claim, but because it is typical of what is going on in the new realm of
buying and engagement. Citizen consumers, it is argued here, express their political
ideas and ideals in conversations with the brands they buy because in some ways
they think this will get them a better hearing than at the polling station. They speak
back to Verizon, Whole Foods, and Starbucks, and as they do, they reveal the
range and depth of current everyday political thinking and action. In particular,
this article focuses on boycotts of Starbucks to show just how engaged, enraged,
and politically focused buyers are in these days of declining distrust in government,
but continuing commitment to collective action and actually to politics in a
traditional sense. In the end, these new forms of engagement reveal an alternative
venue for politics – one created by neoliberalism itself. As the state seems more
remote, many consumers have shifted their political focus from the electoral arena
to the market. Brands went down the same path. In this new political environment,
they often tried to play both sides of the fence, wading into thorny issues
that have value to some of their customers, but at the same time, trying keep
enough distance from issues to deny any real involvement to other customers
who might be alienated by their actions. This double-sided quality to their
actions, as we will see, made brands an even bigger political target in the realm
of engaged buying.
Simon 151

Charles Boycott’s gift

Consumers started boycotting the moment they started buying. But the word boy-
cott didn’t exist until the late 19th century. It came from Ireland and the punishing
rural world of tenancy. This was Charles Cunningham Boycott’s world. Around
1880, he arrived in County Mayo in the western part of the country to run the
farms of the Earl of Erne. Not long after he got to town, Boycott unilaterally
announced a rent hike for area peasants. The Mayo chapter of the Irish Land
League said no. The overseer didn’t budge and moved to evict local league leaders
from their farms. Rather than resort to violence, the Mayo protestors ostracized
Boycott. They refused to work in his fields or tend to his stables. Local businessmen
joined the farm laborers and stopped trading with Boycott. Soon, the postman
wouldn’t deliver his mail. With the protest in full swing, Boycott fled Ireland and
his successor relented somewhat. Word of the anti-Boycott actions spread quickly.
Within months, Boycott changed from a noun to a verb. On November 20 1880,
the London Times reported that the residents of New Pallas ‘have resolved to
boycott’ local businesses. By the following year, The Spectator used the word in
a headline: ‘Dame Nature arose. . . She ‘‘Boycotted’’ London from Kew to Mile
End’ (Friedman, 1999: 30; Paquet, 2003: 229).
The United States of America was, of course, born of a boycott and this tradi-
tion has continued ever since. After Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a
white man, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama protested. For 361 days,
these women and men – many carless – stayed off the buses. They got back on only
after the US Supreme Court ruled that the city’s transportation laws violated the
US Constitution. Ten years later, Cesar Chavez and his farm workers union called
for a boycott against grape growers and a generation of liberals stopped eating the
fruits. Not many of these same people ate Nestle Crunch bars in the 1980s either.
International activists accused the multi-national corporation of pushing baby for-
mula in the underdeveloped world and asked its supporters to give up the com-
pany’s candy bars and hot chocolate mix. In recent years, conservative groups have
called for a boycott against Disney, and its subsidiary ABC, because the company
pays partner benefits and hosts a Gay Day at its theme park. Gay, Lesbian, and
Transgendered groups, in turn, urged supporters to stop using the products of
companies who advertised on the Dr. Laura radio show, after hearing yet another
of the host’s apparent homophobic rants. In 2005, blond-haired, blue-eyed Natalee
Holloway disappeared on the last night of a senior week trip to Aruba. Her parents
believed that the country’s police force botched the case or even worse stonewalled
the investigation against a politically connected suspect. Trying to pressure officials
to redouble their efforts, they called on backers to cancel their trips to the tourist-
dependent island.
Clearly neither the left nor the right owns the boycott as a political tool in the
US. Both, in fact, have turned to the consumer realm with greater frequency in the
last ten years to talk about polity and justice (The Economist, 1990). Not all boy-
cotts are about politics. Some revolve around more personal affairs. One friend
152 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

complains to another or posts a blog about something brothering him and suggests
not buying as a solution. Other boycotts are deliberately and carefully conceived and
well organized. The targets vary as well. Sometimes a boycott – and this suggests
again the range of citizen engagement in politics in the consumer realm – takes direct
aim at a company. Stop buying to stop what the firm is doing. Other times, the firm,
like in Reverend Jeffrey’s case, is a proxy. But always, boycotts are about leverage
and about being heard; they are about the practice of political power.
Boycotters urge fellow shoppers to think about the implications of their pur-
chases. In so doing, they attempt to leverage – and thus acknowledge – consumer
power. Using this muscle, protestors try to deliver a message or get someone else to
do the talking for them (that was Jeffrey’s tack). Whatever the focus or issues,
boycotts reflect the possibilities and pitfalls of the new and ever growing rough
democracy of action at the point of purchase; they are a way to be heard in our
world where shopping creeps into more aspects of daily life and the formal political
system seems less responsive to the needs of many.

Quitting Starbucks
As Starbucks grew to more than 16,000 stores in 50 countries, it emerged as a
recognizable symbol and an object of consumer protest. ‘Ubiquity carries a price,’
Seattle Times business reporter Jake Batsell asserted in 2001, adding that Starbucks
‘emerged as a target for a growing number of critics with varying degree objectives.’
What these protestors shared in common, he continued, was a view of Starbucks as
an ‘icon of corporate power’ (Batsell, 2001). But it wasn’t simply the company’s
size or iconic status that drew the bull’s-eye on its back. Starbucks was, as Pitt et al.
(2006) would call it, an ‘open’ brand; in other words, a brand with ‘relatively
unfixed meanings, allowing consumers latitude [and] opportunity for participation
in creating the meaning of the brand’ (Pitt, 2006).
As Starbucks’ brand managers boast all the time, it sells more than coffee.
Offering a third place, easily attained social status, and solutions to everything
from bowling alone to global warming to the health care crisis to get people in
the door and keep them coming back, it satisfies consumer desires, at the same time
that it raises expectations. Without a doubt, the company gives money to nurses’
associations, literacy programs, and clean water campaigns, but the company is
also the first to pat itself on the back and talk about these things. Implicitly, then, it
sets itself off from other companies – indeed this is an essential role of corporate
social responsibility programs, to make a company selling a rather ordinary prod-
uct look special. With its self-promoting posters and pamphlets, Starbucks has
anointed itself as a corporate do-gooder and agent of the political aspirations of
its consumers. In response, those seeking solutions to political problems can turn
the company’s self-professed values into demands. Drinking or not drinking lattes
becomes, then, a way for consumers to vote on the company’s choices of civic
engagement and have their voices heard on a range of ethical, local, state, national,
and global issues that they care about and want to fix.
Simon 153

Local politics
Actor Rupert Everett starred in An Ideal Husband and My Best Friend’s Wedding,
but he is perhaps best known for his voice work in Shrek 2. Maybe this film taught
him something about cities and chains. Part way through the movie, residents of a
hyper-modern medieval village flee one Starbucks only to race across the street to
another Starbucks. After learning that a real-life Starbucks would open near his
home in the Bloomsbury section of London, Everett labeled the company ‘a face-
less cancer that gobbles up everything in sight’ and joined a boycott of its stores.
‘Nobody in the neighborhood, including me,’ he told a reporter, ‘wants it.’ ‘There
already are plenty of diners and coffee shops already there,’ he explained. Everett’s
neighbor, the comic Alexei Sayle, added his name to the boycott calling the com-
pany a ‘bully.’ ‘One of things about Starbucks,’ he said without cracking a smile, ‘is
that they force up rents and then others like them move in. Eventually, you have a
faceless, dystopian high street.’ Not going to Starbucks to shape urban planning –
that is what Everett and Sayle were trying to do – represents a common resistance
to global brands. Consumers often use Starbucks as a way to talk about their fears
of the growing power of multi-nationals and the destruction of local distinctiveness
that goes with them. Characteristic of branded politics, this resistance is often
carried out on High Streets, not before local governments or zoning boards.
That is because Everett and Sayle thought they had more power as buyers (and
celebrities) than as citizens (Rappai, 2006).
Billy Talen took this fight for local identity to another level, and even though he
critiqued politicians, he didn’t organize his followers into a sturdy voting bloc.
A son of Middle America, he moved to New York City before, as he put it,
Disney and Rudolph Giuliani took over. He recalled with fondness the days
when break-dancers, squidgy men, and hot dog vendors who doubled as philoso-
phers ruled Times Square. In their place came The Lion King and its nightly pre-
dictably banal happy ending. In the stores, tourists moved like sleep through the
Disney Shop and Pizza Hut, shelling out money in Manhattan to buy the same
stuff they could get at home in Manhattan, Kansas.
In 1997, Talen heard the calling to save the masses from corporate sameness.
Taking cues from the fire and brimstone preacher, Jimmy Swaggert, who he called
his ‘reverse mentor,’ he put on a priest’s collar and a white dinner jacket and started
the itinerate Church of Stop Shopping. He delivered his first sermon at the
Disney Store on the corner of 7th Avenue and 42nd Street – as close as Reverend
Billy thought he could get to hell. With the spirit surging through him, he strangled
a three-foot tall stuffed Mickey Mouse in front of a crowd of bewildered
From there, he moved with the Stop Shopping Gospel Chorus onto Starbucks.
At the time the company had about 50 outlets in Manhattan where, Talen insisted,
‘earth tone touchy feeliness masks corporate ruthlessness.’ In April 2000, the
reverend and his choir gathered near Astor Place in the West Village. Before
Starbucks took over the lease on a local landmark, it housed the family-run
154 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

Astor Rivera Cafe. Waiters in ill-fitting tuxedoes tapped their feet and scowled as
they scribbled down customers’ orders. This was just the kind of unpredictable
local place Billy Talen liked. Before he started to preach that day, Reverend Billy
talked with a few patrons. He calmly told them that the coffee company threatened
the fabric of their community. Then the choir started to sing, ‘Put your lattes
down,’ and the Reverend Billy stood up to deliver the word.
‘I have never been so ready to interrupt,’ he recalled about that day at Astor
Place. Jacked up, he poured out the day’s message:


YOU’RE JUST IN HELL THAT’S ALL – Hell defined as sitting here fibrillating on
minor drugs surrounded by fake avant garde wallpaper. . . . Look at these walls, these
impossibly hip earth tones? Is it Jean-Michel Basquiat? Well, not . . . NOT QUITE.
But he sued to live in this neighborhood! And this décor, doesn’t it look very Robert
Rauschenberg? This looks like his photo-montage work. Oh, but no, it’s actually
ALMOST RAUSCHENBERG BUT NOT QUITE! But his studio was here on
Bond Street. No this LIKE the neighborhood, in it IN the neighborhood, but it IS
NOT the neighborhood. It’s Starbucks and where is that? Where is Starbucks? IT’S

The store manager called the police and they shooed off Reverend Billy. But
Starbucks officials knew that he would be back to defend what he saw as the
aesthetics of localism, so they developed a list of things for New York store
mangers to do ‘if Reverend Billy came to your store’ (Solomon, 2000; Talen,
2003: 1–20).
Neoliberalism has not just meant chains everywhere or the outscouring of
politics to corporations, but it has also meant the corporate strong-arming of
weakened governments. Nowhere is this clearer than in the politics and financing
of sports stadiums. But here, too, there are risks for brands, like Starbucks, that
sometimes overplay their hands. When Howard Schultz, boyhood hoopster,
bought the hometown professional baskeball team, the Seattle Supersonics, in
2001, the local paper predicted the ‘rebirth of the franchise.’ Schultz fed these
dreams, talking about returning the team to its ‘glory days.’ But things didn’t
go as planned. Star forward Shawn Kemp couldn’t stay out of a courtroom
or on a basketball court. Then, Schultz, the team president, traded the high-
priced, fan-favorite, Gary Payton, for next to nothing. By 2006, the Sonics
hadn’t turned things around and Schultz wanted a new arena to boost the fran-
chise’s prospects.
The neoliberal political economy constantly leads to the privatizing of past
public functions, but it also seems to socialize and underwrite risk for the largest
business concerns. Private sources demand public support, like stadiums, and cities,
states, and counties often relent because they have so few viable revenue streams
in the wake of wholesale de-industrialization. When Seattle voters said no to
Schultz’s request for a new stadium, he acted petulant in public and promptly
Simon 155

sold the team to an investment group, which would move the club to Oklahoma
One fan feeling betrayed wrote exploring the tensions between the public needs
and private demands, ‘I should have known immediately’ that Schultz’s promises
for the team ‘were a trick, judging by the exorbitant prices he charges for his liquid
sin.’ Sure enough, he continued looking back over the CEO’s tenure, ‘it was all a
farce. Not only did he turn the team’s greatest player and most beloved player out
of town, but he threw a temper tantrum when Seattle refused to charge taxpayers
for another publicly-funded arena for his new toy.’ Based on his reading of
Schultz’s actions, this man concluded, ‘any corporation run by this man is surely
evil’ (‘Ex-Sonic Fan’, 2006). No more lattes for him or a host of other Sonics fans.
Local sports columnist Robert Jamieson supported the boycott. He quoted from
the back of a Starbucks coffee cup that said, ‘voting is the method by which we
purchase the right to be critical.’ His vote, no Starbucks, adding, ‘Take that, Mr.
Coffee.’ But reflecting the neoliberal turn, he didn’t attack in his rant, the idea of
local governments underwriting privately owned sports franchises. And as a truly
local issue, this didn’t cost Starbucks too many latte buyers in the rough democracy
of buying (Jamieson, 2006).

National politics
Even though political parties no longer command the same loyalties that they did
in the past, politics does still divide people. In some ways, though, these divides get
played out as much in the realm of buying as they do at the polling station.
Companies that want to maintain a mass market, however, usually don’t want
to lose even a fraction of their audience. This is the political tightrope Starbucks
and other open brands must walk. While Starbucks attracts some ‘cappuccino
conservatives,’ most of its customers self-identify as ‘latte liberals’ or ‘macchiato
moderates.’ To keep its core customers intact, Starbucks reaffirms all the time with
posters and pronouncements just how good it is to the planet and its workers
behind the counter and in the fields. CEO Howard Schultz was a one-time Bill
Bradley backer and later a supporter of Barack Obama. He publically touted his
green(ish) leanings and commitments to diversity. While Starbucks surely knew
that its public (light) blueness won it some customers, it never wanted to be too
blue to turn off redish (deep-pocketed) conservatives. But because politics, whether
practiced at the polling station or the cash register, always divides people,
Starbucks couldn’t straddle the fence all the time.
The conservative gun lobby, to look at one example of where the brand got
caught in the web of buying-based politics, took aim at Starbucks in 2010. Just
after the first of the year, an organized group targeted Starbucks to test a
Washington state law that allowed gun owners to openly carry weapons in
public places, that is, if the stores let them do so. California Pizza Kitchen and
Peet’s Coffee quickly announced that they did not want guy carriers in their shops.
But Starbucks remained silent. Within days, determined gun owners strode into a
156 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

number of downtown Seattle coffee shops with their kids at their sides and their
pistols visible on their belts.
Gun control advocates protested. Within days, the Brady Campaign to Prevent
Gun Violence came to Seattle with a stack of petitions, calling on Starbucks to offer
‘espresso shots, not gunshots’ and declare its coffee houses ‘gun-free zones.’
Starbucks announced, however, it was sticking to its policy of letting customers
carry guns where it was legal, saying it did not ‘want to be put in the middle of
a larger gun-control debate.’ Despite the modesty of this statement, it was really
a rather disingenuous attempt to step outside a political fray. By its own volition,
Starbucks is already enmeshed in politics. It carries fair trade coffee, promises to
help farmers around the world, and it touts its green values, proclaiming on
its web-page how it helps to limit carbon admissions and purchases large
quantities of renewable energy. Yet it wanted to pretend it could dodge the polit-
ically knotty gun issue and hang on to its cappuccino-conservative bloc of buyers
(Ward, 2010).
Despite its claims of political nonpartisanship, Starbucks couldn’t avoid getting
caught again in the crosshairs of the fierce Red State-Blue State divide in the
United States. In 2009, the company took to the airwaves to sell its new instant
coffee product, VIA. To push the portable brew, it invoked an enduring symbol of
American democracy. In one advertisement, an odd cast of characters – karate
yellow belts, Civil War Reenactors, nurses, people who looked like their pets, and
men who yelled at ‘town hall meetings’ – find common cause. Despite their obvious
differences, they all agree that they couldn’t taste ‘the difference,’ that is between
Starbucks coffee brewed in a store and Starbucks coffee made from a packet
of VIA.
With the VIA trailer, Starbucks tried to invoke consensus. Conservatives
weren’t buying it. In the midst of their own frequently denounced Tea Party spon-
sored town hall meetings called to kill President Obama’s health care bill, they
made clear that they couldn’t put aside the blue/green messaging Starbucks used to
win over ‘latte liberals.’ When they saw that white man yelling at a political meeting
in the VIA commercial, they didn’t, therefore, see a common cause of taste. They
lumped Starbucks in with other urban elites, like the New York Times (the paper of
choice at Starbucks) and MSNBC, who they said were all too quick to put down
common folks and commonsense ideas. ‘In a recent television ad,’ Mark Gillar of
the Conservative Consumer Coalition said, announcing yet another boycott of the
coffee company, ‘Starbucks mocked conservatives by suggest[ing] we’re too stupid
to appreciate the difference in their new coffee’ (Aditham, 2009; Starbucks Via
Teaser, 2010). Once again, Starbucks entered the polling station of the rough
democracy of buying and couldn’t control the message.

Global politics
More than local landscapes and the Red State-Blue State divide drove anti-
Starbucks protests. Politically engaged consumers target the coffee company to
Simon 157

voice their sentiments about global concerns like war, foreign relations, and com-
modities markets. Starbucks’ response, like the gun dispute, was to try to benefit
from the outscouring of politics while appearing also to be remain neutral, but it
can not always do this in the global marketplace. To be sure, the global economy
opens up larger markets, but it creates along the way pitfalls and corporate PR
challenges. Companies can try to avoid politics as much as they want, but when it
comes to some issues and some places, like Harlan Country and the Middle East,
there is often no neutral ground. It is all about ‘which side are you on.’
Brands like to imagine, borrowing Thomas Friedman’s hopeful phrase, that they
operate in a ‘flat world,’ but that place of free trade, muted nationalisms, and open
communication doesn’t exist yet (Friedman, 2005). The world, in fact, remains
jagged, and in many places, a product’s national origins and even a CEO’s religious
views, still matter; they matter politically as much, if not more, than the product
itself. The fact that these things matter shows that the most recent wave of glob-
alization has failed to create a single global market or completely global citizens or to
erase, even with the emergence of neoliberalism, national boundaries or even more
importantly, nationalism. Doing business in the not so flat global world means, then,
that you are always in politics, no matter what a company says or doesn’t say.
Buyers, again showing their political engagement, make this clear all the time.
When the Iraq War – to look at one example – started in 2003, consumers on
both sides of the issue politicized their purchases. called
on the ‘the millions of the people against the war’ to ‘boycott brand America,’
including Starbucks (Kirchbaum, 2003). Alternatively, some hawks didn’t think the
coffee company demonstrated enough patriotism. One group put Starbucks on its
boycott list after finding a Sheryl Crow CD in a store. ‘As much as I enjoy your
coffee,’ JA from Syracuse told Starbucks officials, ‘I will not be frequenting your
stores until you stop playing and promoting Sheryl Crow’s music in your stores.
She is an anti-war celebrity whose irresponsible message emboldened America’s
enemies. As a patriotic American who loves his country and supports President
Bush in the War on Terror, I find her distasteful, and thus, you will not receive my
hard-earned dollars for your products and services’ (JA to Starbucks, nd).
Years before the Iraq War in 1996, Starbucks opened six stores in Tel Aviv.
Seven years later, all the outlets were closed. Trying to play politics to their advan-
tage, Starbucks executives told reporters that the Intifada did them in. According
to this storyline, the outlets opened at the wrong time, as suicide bombers launched
their unpredictable attacks and made people leery of going out for a coffee. ‘We
knew that we were a target in Israel,’ a Starbucks official told a journalist. But
other political forces were at work here as well (Starbucks to Shut Down all 6 of its
Cafes in Israel, 2003).
Not long after Starbucks first opened in Israel, pro-Palestinian groups in the
West launched a boycott against the company because of its presence in Tel Aviv.
In a well-planned guerrilla theater performance in 1996, thirty soldiers from the
self-styled Badger Defence Force stormed a Starbucks on London’s Oxford Street
armed with water pistols. Using what they labeled ‘the logic of Israeli settlers,’ the
158 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

badgers ‘evicted customers and erected the first badger settlement in London near
the espresso machine.’ Waving placards proclaiming, ‘If it works in Palestine why
not here’ and ‘It’s ours because we say so,’ the protesters set up checkpoints to
inspect shoppers for concealed weapons. ‘If they’re not a badger, they could be a
terrorist,’ a ‘spokesbadger’ said. At the same time, they handed out fact sheets
designed to prove that Howard Schultz was ‘a major supporter of the Israeli
state’ (Armed Badgers Storm London Starbucks, 2002).
That wasn’t the end of the Starbucks story in the Middle East. The idea
that Schultz was pro-Israeli won’t go away. Backers of the Boycott Israel
Campaign put Starbucks near the top of its list of Pro-Israeli companies.
As proof of Schultz’s true loyalties, the group pointed out that the Jerusalem
Fund, a Jewish organization allied with hawkish conservatives Jeanne Kilpatrick
and Margaret Thatcher, honored the Starbucks CEO in 1998, citing his key role in
‘promoting close alliance between the United States and Israel.’ They further the
fund accused of sponsoring ‘zionist propaganda,’ ‘justif[ing] Israeli occupation of
Jerusalem,’ and ‘strengthening the special connection between American,
European, and Israeli defense industries.’ Zeroing in on Schultz, his opponents
brought up that Starbucks boasted about the chairman’s honor from the pro-
Israel group on its official web-page, thus further justifying their call for a latte
On July 4, 2002, Schultz gave a speech at a Seattle synagogue that further fueled
pro-Palestinian enmity towards his company (Holmes, 2002). ‘What is going on in
the Middle East,’ he maintained, ‘is not an isolated part of the world. The rise of
anti-Semitism is at an all-time high since the 1930s. . . . If you leave this synagogue
tonight and go back to your home and ignore this, then shame on us. This isn’t
about Israel or land. It’s about legitimizing attacks on and murder of Jews.’
He added, ‘Palestinians aren’t doing their job – they’re not stopping terrorism.’
He ended his speech, calling on ‘every Jew in America’ to defend Israel (Fish,
American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice felt like the Starbucks chairman
‘delegitmize[d] the Palestinian desire to achieve the right of freedom, and to defend
themselves against attacks by asserting that the struggle is based on religious as
opposed to political grounds’. When they distilled his remarks, they thought they
reeked of ‘‘Islamaphobia’’. Based on this assessment, they urged ‘Muslim[s] to take
up this boycott in every city, in every neighborhood where Starbucks operates. You
Might Save a Life in Palestine’ (Boycott Israel Campaign, nd)
Attacks from Muslim groups in the US and abroad made publicity
obsessed Starbucks nervous, especially as it began to open stores in Beirut,
Riyadh, Dubai, and Cairo – all growth areas for the company. This anxiety may
help to explain Starbucks’ pull back from Israel. Perhaps the company didn’t want
to risk too much bad publicity and too many coffee sales in the burgeoning Arab
market, especially with weak profits and stiff competition in Israel.
In another globalized twist on the story, Starbucks’ flight from Tel Aviv earned
it the distrust of pro-Israel groups in the United States. ‘Disgraceful!’ one activist
Simon 159

wrote of the company’s decision. He thought Starbucks backed out of Israel in

response to Arab-led boycotts:

‘Starbucks,’ he continued, ‘says that it is a business decision, not a political decision.

They are not closing any stores in the Arab or Muslim countries. Let us as Jews, let
them know that we will not patronize their stores for their position on Israel. When
they lose enough business, maybe they will get the message that we as a Jewish pop-
ulation will not tolerate their actions’ (Starbucks vs. Israel, 2003).

Starbucks got pulled back into Middle Eastern politics again in 2006 and in
2009. Throughout the earlier summer, as border skirmishes between Israel and
Lebanon blew up into a deadly war, rumors swirled across the web that Howard
Schultz was funneling money to Israeli defense forces. The company’s PR depart-
ment moved quickly – at the time Starbucks had almost 200 stores in Saudi Arabia,
Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and other places in the Arab world – to
rebuff the charges.4 ‘Starbucks,’ Schultz wrote somewhat misleadingly, is a ‘‘non-
political organization’’ that does not ‘support political causes (Starbucks Press
Release, 2009).’5 Western and Middle Eastern media outlets backed him up
saying that the rumors about his funding the Israeli army were false. But still the
charges didn’t go away. ‘I believe Starbucks is supporting Israel,’ insisted a young
Kuwaiti, ‘it is an American company therefore it is an obvious conclusion.’ When
asked if he would back a boycott of the company, he answered, ‘Of course. . . they
are killing children in Lebanon’ (Al-Khaled, 2006).

Global consciousness raising through boycotting

In the spring of 2001, a lone woman held up a sign in front of the Bismarck, South
Dakota Barnes and Noble. At the time, this was the the state’s only Starbucks. She
called on Starbucks to stop using genetically engineered food, especially milk from
cows fed bovine growth hormones. She further condemned the company’s limited
commitment to fair trade coffee (Herzog, 2001). Apparently, the South Dakota
woman wasn’t alone. She was part of an organized campaign put together by the
Organic Consumer Association (OCA) to boycott Starbucks and get it to stop
using altered milk and start buying more fair trade coffee.
Ryan Zinn was in charge of the OCA effort. Asked why his group zeroed in on
Starbucks, he explained,’You couldn’t go after Folgers. . . because they didn’t care.’
However Starbucks preached corporate social responsibility and promised ‘at least
to some extent’ to protect the environment and laborers. The company could, in
other words, be held accountable because, despite its denials, it took political
stands. But that wasn’t all. Starbucks, Zinn maintained, had the right customer
base. Latte liberals could, OCA organizers knew, be shamed into not buying
Starbucks if that they found out that the company’s deeds didn’t match its rhetoric
and they would no longer look good in the eyes of others carrying those white cups
down the street.
160 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

Beginning in 2001, OCA backers, like the one in Bismarck, stood outside
Starbucks locations handing out fact sheets detailing the ill effects of milk from
cows fed growth hormones and complaining about Starbucks dragging its feet on
fair trade. The fliers called on supporters to boycott the stores, send protest letters
to the company, and engage in a little guerilla consumerism. They urged backers to
go into Starbucks and order fair trade coffee. If none was available, the company
was supposed to make some on the spot. Zinn and the OCA instructed supporters
to ask the baristas to brew some of the coffee. If enough people did it, they could,
the OCA reasoned, gum up the assembly-line works in most stores. Another OCA
flier jammed the Starbucks logo. The company in this version underwent a sex
change, morphing from an inviting siren, if there is such a thing, into a cartoonish
‘Frankenbucks’ with beady, over caffeinated eyes, a diabolical smile, and twisted
wires sticking out of his head.
Still Ryan Zinn insisted that the OCA campaign was only partially about
Starbucks. More fundamentally he and his colleagues wanted to use the boycott
of the coffee giant to initiate a conversation about genetically altered food, global
trade, and the exploitation of labor at the bottom of each cup of coffee. In other
words, they wanted to raise consciousness about global justice. When asked how he
would assess the Starbucks campaign, he explained:

I think I would consider . . . [it] . . . mostly ongoing. If we were to think of the

Starbucks campaign as three (at least) concentric circles, the inner circle being internal
policy change at Starbucks, the outermost circle being whole scale, structural change
of the global trade system, the middle, and often overlooked circle, would be advanc-
ing the organic/Fair Trade market beyond Starbucks or single products, like coffee.

Thinking about these three overlapping concerns, Ryan evaluated each one:
‘The demand and market for ‘‘Fair Trade’’ items, from apparel to coffee,’ he
noted, continues to grow. He added, ‘Fair Trade is a reasonably recognizable
term and new industries are integrating Fair Trade practices, if not institutionally,
then voluntarily. Unfortunately, this has not led to THE (!) question of, well if we
have certain products that are fairly traded (.1%) than what does that say for the
rest of the marketplace?’ When asked to grade the campaign, Zinn showed he
clearly did not believe in grade inflation. He gave the OCA campaign a C+
(Zinn, 2006; Some Starbucks, 2007).

Closing thoughts
Zinn’s gloomy assessment of the fair trade campaign is not just about his opposi-
tion to grade inflation, it says something more about the larger state and limits of
consumption-based political engagement, especially when buying is the final point
of the political act. Clearly, many citizens, following the behavior modeled by the
Seattle boycotter Reverend Jeffrey, have made an end-run around a non-responsive
and increasingly handcuffed political system. Where a consumer activist from
Simon 161

the past, a Ralph Nader for instance, would have turned to the voting booth or
pressed for state intervention, the new citizen consumers turned to buying and
corporations to shape policies. Even more important, they used their power as
consumers, ahead of their power as voters, to try to shape the social order. But
that too is important. Like Jeffrey, the other Starbucks boycotters were not simply
trying to improve the marketplace or their marketplace position; they wanted to
affect the distribution of public power – really the point of all political activity –
and they thought that the best way to do so, and the place where their voices would
be heard the clearest, was at the point of purchase.
Looking at Zinn’s case of fair trade, activists like him have made some in-roads.
Large and small coffee companies have bought over the last twenty years larger
quantities of ethically sourced beans from small farmers from Guatemala to
Indonesia. Starbucks, it turns out, is the world’s largest purchaser of fair trade
beans. In England, where fair trade has gained widespread support, Starbucks now
makes all of its espresso-based drinks from fair trade beans. This speaks to how
politics work in what we might call, ‘the rough democracy of buying.’ Open brands,
like Starbucks, will respond to pressure. Often they will buckle if confronted by
organized protest, protest beyond a loose network of friends and a quickly
designed, and easily forgotten, Facebook campaign. Yet as Zinn’s modest self-
assessment also makes clear, there are limits to what consumer citizens, even orga-
nized consumer citizens, can achieve when they do find some success.
Politics are by nature divisive. Almost always there are winners and losers as
groups vie for the finite resources of power and public recognition. Just as often,
politics, whether pursued at the polling station or at the point of purchase, create
little common-ground. Starbucks found this out when it got caught in the middle of
the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the fights in the US between gun control advocates
and their opponents. But in the end, brand managers don’t really want to pick
sides. Instead, they want a broad audience, so they act like crafty centralist poli-
ticians, seeking the safe, flat, nonthreatening middle ground. As the fight over the
right to carry guns in public illustrated, open, but still massmarket, brands want to
de-politicize issues at the very same time that they hope to benefit from the growing
lack of faith in the political system. Brands want to make touchy matters non-
contentious and non-ideological. That way, they avoid alienating any block of
potential consumers. Clever business interests, then, seek to make gestures of solv-
ing social problems and resolving political claims, while neutering issues through
compromise. Really, they want to co-opt politics, gaining through gestures and
promotion the loyalty of supporters (and market share) without ostracizing oppo-
nents. Managing people and ideas, therefore, trumps justice.
That is what Reverend Jeffrey found out in Seattle. Rather than acknowledge
the politics of race and police power in the city, Starbucks claimed innocence.
Wanda Herndon, Starbucks’ senior vice president for worldwide affairs, confessed
that the company felt ‘deeply hurt and perplexed’ by the boycott call after the
police shooting in the city. In response, she talked about the company’s philan-
thropic efforts and pointed to a store it opened in one of Seattle’s historic black
162 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

neighborhoods, claiming that this outlet had provided a symbol of hope for the
distressed area and represented Starbucks’ commitment to Seattle’s African
American community. Herndon added that while Starbucks understood the pain
and outrage over the police shooting, it would, she argued, ‘be inappropriate to heed
the protestors demands.’ The local press, and seemingly local consumers, essentially
agreed with Starbucks. It gave the company high marks for ‘helping’ out in black
Seattle, but most didn’t expect it to display any other sort of responsibility to the
community itself and the demands made by community members. The only legiti-
mate politics here were Starbucks’ politics (Davila, 2001; Jennings, 2001).
That same slippery connection between claiming innocent and denying respon-
sibility is another reason why Zinn gave his fair trade campaign such a low grade.
His organization got fair trade beans into Starbucks, but they did not raise con-
sumer consciousness about global inequities, endemic poverty in coffee growing
regions, and the structural divide between the developed world and the developing
world. That is again because Starbucks and other companies want – need – to
present themselves as non-partisan do-gooders with little responsibility beyond a
single helpful act or gesture, even though they are, in reality, in the throes of knotty
politics every day, dealing with issues of land use, urban growth, workers’ rights,
and the distribution of local, national, and global resources. They will do whatever
they can to move the discussion to the most non-contentious middle-ground.
By selling a little more fair trade coffee, a company like Starbucks is trying to
look like it is doing good, but really, it is trying to make protestors like the one
in Bismarck go away and move knotty issues to the margins before they turn some
customers off.
In the end, while a good deal of political engagement in the neoliberal order may
have shifted from the electoral realm to the buying realm, the nature of politics has
not changed. The politics of buying suggest that the act of buying is what matters
and that it is, in a sense, a substitute for politics. While buying can make a differ-
ence in the distribution of power and buyers can force companies to change how
they operate in order to hold onto their market shares, this form of civic engage-
ment can also make dissent fade away. Usually when a company like Starbucks
yields to customer demands for political action, it tells customers, in turn, that they
are making a crucial difference through their buying choices. Yet ‘political’ firms
never suggest that another step or two is needed in the process. Essentially they
allow customers, and customers surely allow themselves, to wash their hands of the
problem with a single purchase and perpetuate the privatization of policy. Why
enlist in a political crusade or a long-term political project if you are already doing
something to help the environment or the less fortunate each and every day, like
buying a venti skim milk latte from a company that says it makes things better? The
politics of buying, in these cases, doesn’t solve things; more often, it covers them up
with a band-aide. At the same time, then, politics as buying has a tendency to make
real solutions harder to see. Even more it takes away a sense of urgency. Because of
their purchases, people feel less of a sense of guilt. That is what some pay the
premium for, so that’s what Starbucks, GAP, and other cause marketers give
Simon 163

them, the illusion of fixing something broken. The buying in the politics of buying,
therefore, is the only act that matters. But politics that result in change and shifts in
power, as studies of the Populists, Labor Movement, Progressive Era consumer
protection movement, and Civil Rights struggles make clear, is about much more.
It is about reframing issues and raising consciousness; it is about mobilizing people
and resources. Even more, it is about organizing. Social change requires tireless
communication, education, networking, and organization building. Without orga-
nizing and organizations, issues all too easily get managed, massaged, and co-opted.
That leads to less democracy and more denial of responsibility (Gladwell, 2010;
Little, 2008; Simon, 2009).
Maybe the problem – both for consumers who want to shape politics and for
scholars examining the connections between buying and politics – is how both
groups understand a purchase in the rough democracy of buying. Buying, of
course, is only rarely a functional act. More often, it is a symbolic transaction,
where values and meanings are constantly created and recreated. A purchase, then,
might best be understood as a process distinct from the final outcome. To put this
in political terms, maybe a purchase – or the withholding of a purchase – should be
thought of as part of the process of politicalization, as a step on the way to full
engagement, similar to the speech making and meetings that the democratic theo-
rist Lawrence Goodwyn describes in his path-breaking studies of Populism in the
US South and Solidarity in Poland, rather than as the final political act itself.
Again this is something that those who buy (and want to act politically) and
those who study buying and politics might need to consider.
As a first step in the process of politicalization, consumers have to think about,
and recognize, the connection between what they buy and the related worlds of
production, labor, and exchange. They need, in other words, to break the illusion
of isolation and individual free choice that much of the consumer culture tries to
build up around products in the first place. Second, they must see that their pur-
chases matter – matter to people, places, and power. But in order for this recog-
nition to further the political process, consumers must talk out loud, even advertize
their understanding of the connectivity of an object to other processes. They must
say to friends on the phone or on Facebook or over email that they are buying or
not buying something for a specific set of reasons with some, however vague,
intended set of results. This way they make clear in their own words the larger
meaning and intentions of their consumer actions. They will own them, therefore,
apart from the actions of socially responsible corporations that sometimes sponsor
(and co-opt) political buying. This second step also lets socially aware buyers recruit
others to the specific issue and to their way of thinking. As a third and final step in the
process, consumers must move from politicization to politics, from consciousness
raising to what Goodwyn calls, ‘the creation of an institutional means whereby the
new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in
an autonomous political way, the movement politicized.’ Here Goodwyn, like the
fair trade activist Ryan Zinn, meant something quite specific. He is referring to a
political party or pressure group that re-groups in a sense and re-enters the realm of
164 Journal of Consumer Culture 11(2)

formal politics and battles entrenched forces over state power. For both of them, this
was the culmination of the process (Goodwyn, 1978: 8; 1991).
In the end, consumption and consumer protests surely have power – power to
make large and influential entities like Starbucks and Walmart act in ways they
don’t necessarily want to act (even if they are happy to take credit for their actions).
Yet, if consumers confine their actions to the still somewhat private realm of
buying they simply perpetuate a sense of powerless because, no matter how
much the state seems to shrink in the age of global capitalism, it still matters.
Just ask all those consumer companies that spend gobs of money lobbying legis-
lative bodies and chief executives.

1. For a look at individual decision making about boycotts and thus another category of
consumer engagement with brands, see Sankan et al. (2001); and John and Klein (2003).
2. Putnam’s book created a great deal of debate. For some additional sources on the ques-
tions of social capital and civic engagement, see Field (2008); and Skocpol (1996). For an
update see, Newman and Jacobs (2010). For a larger view, see Conway (2000).
3. See other useful surveys of consumption in 20th Century America, see Cross (2003) and
Glickman (2009).
4. According to the store locator on on 12 July 2007, here is the break down
of Starbucks stores in the Middle East:
Bahrain – 9
Egypt – 7
Jordan –7
Kuwait – 47
Lebanon – 11
Oman – 5
Qatar – 9
Saudi Arabia 55
UAE – 45
5 See Starbucks Press Release (2009).

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Bryant Simon is Professor of History and the Director of American Studies at

Temple University. He is the author, most recently, of Everything But the Coffee:
Learning About America from Starbucks (California 2009).