Starbucks’ Holiday Hashtag Disaster

Warm refreshments, winter fun, and social media.

What could capture the holidays better?

One of my favorite stories from Meltdown is about a Starbucks social media disaster that arrived just in time for the holidays. We’re providing an excerpt here to get you in the holiday spirit.

In the winter of 2012, Starbucks launched a social media campaign to get coffee lovers in the holiday spirit. It asked its customers to post festive messages on Twitter using the hashtag #SpreadTheCheer. The company also sponsored an ice rink at the Natural History Museum in London, which featured a giant screen to display all the tweets that included the hashtag.

It was a smart marketing idea. Customers would generate free content for Starbucks and flood the internet with warm and fuzzy messages about the upcoming holidays and their favorite Starbucks drinks. The messages wouldn’t just appear online but also on a big screen visible to many ice skaters, coffee drinkers at the ice rink café, museumgoers, and passersby. And inappropriate messages would be weeded out by a moderation filter, so the holiday spirit — and its association with warm Starbucks drinks — would prevail.

It was a Saturday evening in mid-December, and everything at the ice rink was going well — for a while. Then, unbeknownst to Starbucks, the content filter broke, and messages like these began to appear on the giant screen:

The messages were referring to a recent controversy that involved the use of legal tax-avoidance tactics by Starbucks.

Kate Talbot, a community organizer in her early twenties, took a photo of the screen with her phone and tweeted it with these words: “Oh dear, Starbucks have a screen showing their #spreadthecheer tweets at the National History Museum.” Soon enough Talbot’s own tweet showed up on the screen. So she sent another one: “Omg now they are showing my tweet! Someone PR should be on this . . . #spreadthecheer #Starbucks #payyourtaxes.”

News of the ongoing fiasco spread quickly over Twitter and encouraged even more people to get involved. “Turns out a Starbucks in London is displaying on a screen any tweet with the #spreadthecheer hashtag,” one man tweeted. “Oh this will be fun.”

The avalanche of tweets was unstoppable.

Dear @StarbucksUK, was it clever to have a screen at a museum showing all tweets to you? #spreadthecheer #payyourtaxes

Starbucks found itself in Chick Perrow’s world.

Social media is a complex system. It’s made up of countless people with many different views and motives. It’s hard to know who they are and what they will make of a particular campaign. And it’s hard to predict how they might react to a mistake like the glitch of Starbucks’ moderation filter. Kate Talbot responded by taking a photo of the screen and sharing it. Others then reacted to the news that any tweet using the right hashtag would be displayed at a prominent location. And then traditional media outlets reacted to the blizzard of tweets. They published reports of how the PR stunt backfired, so the botched campaign became mainstream news and reached even more people. These were unintended interactions between the glitch in the content filter, Talbot’s photo, other Twitter users’ reactions, and the resulting media coverage.

When the content filter broke, it increased tight coupling because the screen now pulled in any tweet automatically. And the news that Starbucks had a PR disaster in the making spread rapidly on Twitter — a tightly coupled system by design. At first, just a few people shared the information, then some of their followers shared it, too, and then the followers of those followers, and so on. Even after the moderation filter was fixed, the slew of negative tweets continued. And there was nothing Starbucks could do to stop them.

From Meltdown by Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Press. Copyright © 2018 by Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik.

*If you’re looking for the perfect gift for your friends and family, why not buy them a copy of Meltdown? It’s the perfect book to cozy up with as we bring 2020, a banner year for catastrophe, to a close.

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Originally published at on December 17, 2020.



Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out.

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Chris Clearfield

Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out.