A Whole Latte Love

You know how sometimes you’re expecting a particular present for your birthday or Christmas or whatever, but you wind up not getting it? And you know how after you don’t get it, you file a class-action lawsuit against the person who failed to give it to you? Of course you do! We’ve all been there.

That’s essentially what happened a few weeks ago, when a New York woman sued Starbucks for $114 million after the coffee titan changed its mind about honoring coupons that had promised a free iced beverage. Kelly Coakley, 23, of Queens, felt “betrayed” when her coupon was not honored, and experts agree the only way to treat a sense of betrayal is by applying millions of dollars to the wound.

Starbucks’ story is that the coupons were only intended to be sent to a small number of employees in the Southeast region of the United States, and that those employees were invited to forward the coupons only to friends and family. But then, as Starbucks put it in its official press release, the coupon was “redistributed beyond the original intent and modified beyond Starbucks control.” With millions and millions of people all over the country potentially using the coupon to score free iced coffee, Starbucks said that effective immediately, the coupon was void.

Now, there are two possible scenarios here. Neither one makes Starbucks look very good.

In Scenario 1, the coupon was an example of “viral marketing,” where the company pretends it doesn’t want it to get out when really it does. Look at the results: Lots and lots of media mentions of Starbucks, all for free. Viral marketing is becoming commonplace, as musicians are “shocked” when their new songs leak onto the Internet before the release date, or clips from movies “somehow” find their way onto YouTube, or “unauthorized” photos of semi-nude celebrities appear in the tabloids just when the celebrity has a new movie out. And it’s quite a coincidence that spinach becomes deadly THE SAME WEEK that Popeye’s new autobiography is released, right?

In Scenario 2, Starbucks really had NO IDEA that the coupon they e-mailed regional employees would somehow spread. For this scenario to work, Starbucks must be utterly unfamiliar with the Internet, perhaps only dimly aware of its existence, having heard at some point that “the kids like to use it.” I envision this conversation:

STARBUCKS EXECUTIVE: We can e-mail the coupon to a few people in the Southeast region, and as long as we don’t put any long-distance e-stamps on it, it can’t be sent out any farther.
OTHER STARBUCKS EXECUTIVE: True. Just to be safe, we can also put “DO NOT FORWARD” on it, and then the e-post office won’t deliver it without it being re-e-stamped.

So is Starbucks sneaky or just stupid? I could go either way, actually. It’s sneaky the way they pretend to be all Earth-mother save-the-environment we’re-just-hippies-like-you when actually they’re a huge, ruthless corporation. But at the same time, “stupid” seems like a good word for a place that calls its smallest serving “tall.”

Anyway, for whatever reason, Starbucks issued a coupon and then canceled it. I imagine that for the average person, going outside, walking 50 feet in any direction to arrive at a Starbucks, submitting the coupon and being told it was no longer valid caused a feeling of mild, vague disappointment. For the average person, it was probably akin to learning the grocery store was out of French vanilla ice cream and having to buy regular vanilla instead. Such minor letdowns are the stuff of life.

But not for Kelly Coakley, 23, of Queens! Evidently Ms. Coakley was so racked with sorrow and disenchantment over her failed Starbucks freebie that she ran sobbing back to her apartment, shattered her framed “I Heart Starbucks” poster on the floor, and lay weeping inconsolably on her bed for several days, soothed only when a lawyer came to her bedside, gently stroked her hair, and said he could sue Starbucks for $114 million. At least I imagine that’s how it happened. What the lawyer neglected to tell her, of course, is that if she wins she’ll get $1,000 while the law firm gets $113,999,000.

It’s unlikely that Coakley will win her case, though. I suspect it will be thrown out before it gets very far. For a frivolous lawsuit to be successful, the plaintiff usually needs to have suffered some actual injury, or at the very least emotional trauma beyond mere disappointment. Spilling hot coffee on yourself and looking for someone else to blame: lawsuit. Failure to extract complimentary iced coffee from a company that is under no obligation to give it to you: not a lawsuit.

But to me, the lawsuit is emblematic of something that plagues a lot of people of Coakley’s and my generation: a sense of entitlement. We think we deserve everything, regardless of whether we have put any effort or money into it. I know I do. I’m a movie critic, so I get to see almost everything before it opens and for free. When I do have to pay for a ticket, I’m indignant about it. “What is this crap?!” I fume. “If I want to watch ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ I should be able to do so FREE OF CHARGE! The GALL of these movie studios, requiring me to PAY to watch, analyze and review their products in the course of doing my job. Well, I never!” Sometimes I stomp. Sometimes I come down with a case of the vapors and must lie in the shade for a spell.

I also see this attitude at many of those free screenings I go to. We critics get a row taped off for us, while the hoi polloi wait in line and have to fight for a seat. Still, the movie is free, and they’re seeing it a few days before it officially opens. Nothing to complain about, right? Wrong. Often there are radio stations there, promoting the movie and themselves by tossing out T-shirts and posters. And OY GEVALT, you should hear the wailing that ensues when people do not get their free T-shirts and/or free posters at their free movie screenings! “Someone ELSE got one, so why don’t I get one?!” they whine. “When I am invited to free entertainment events, I demand additional free things as well!”

The other night I was in the theater just as they were letting the crowd in. There are 45 rows in the theater; one of them, about midsection, was taped off for press. The first people to come in headed straight for the taped-off row — and were vocally upset to find they couldn’t sit there.

“Here we go — aw, it’s taped off! Why is it taped off?!” one of them said.

“It’s for the press,” I responded.

“Aw, man!”

“There are literally 44 other rows you can sit in. You’re the first people in the theater.”

Finding my logic unassailable, they grudgingly found other seats while still coveting the one row they couldn’t have. I hope the theater has $114 million to spare, because they looked pretty disappointed.

The misspelling of "smart" as "smrt" is from "The Simpsons," of course. In one episode Homer dances around singing, "I am so smart! I am so smart! S-M-R-T! I mean, S-M-A-R-T!" Classic.

I mentioned the people who go crazy for free stuff at movie screenings once before, too. And I still have more to say about them! Just you wait.