Dumb Starbucks Mystery: Silly Stunt, or Genius Marketing?

In Los Angeles, a coffeeshop opened with a peculiar selling point: it wasn’t Starbucks, it was “dumb” Starbucks. Dumb Starbucks Coffee quickly hit national news as customers waited in two hour lines just to check it out. The company had menu items just like a regular Starbucks, except that every product had the word “dumb” in front of it, and even more bizarrely, all the drinks were free. “Visitors lined up around the block and waited for hours to get a chance to go to the Dumb Starbucks,” reported Buzzfeed.

Although the store advertised drinks like “Dumb Frappuccinos” and “Dumb Espresso,” only lattes and iced coffees were actually available to customers who got to the counter. The store was run by just two baristas, who said they had been hired off Craigslist. Dumb Starbucks reportedly mimicked the interior facade of a real Starbucks, complete with offered CDs on display, albeit with altered titles like “Dumb Norah Jones Duos.”

Public interest stirred as photos of the store and its drinks were posted to Twitter and Facebook. The company had posted a list of frequently asked questions about the legality of their actions, explaining that they were basically an “art gallery” under the law, and that their product and use of the Starbucks logo was legal under parody law. Starbucks has built a reputation for itself as a strong protector of its trademark, even threatening to sue a small business owner after he sold a “frappucino beer” to his customers. Many people were still left wondering, though: is this legal?

Starbucks responded. In an email to USA Today, the international coffee shop reported that, “We are evaluating next steps and while we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark.” They emphasized that the store was not Starbucks affiliated.

Today, many questions regarding the origins of Dumb Starbucks Coffee were answered by comedian Nathan Fielder. He expressed to a gathered crowd in front of the store that he was behind the act, and that he had always wanted to open a small business, citing “the American Dream.”

Although Fielder kept up the charade of an enterprising business man, he eventually revealed that the stunt was publicity for his show “Nathan for You.” The series follows Fielder, who attempts to convince business owners to run strange marketing schemes for customers. The store, and its runaway success, will be featured in a future episode.

Shortly after his announcement, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health shut down Dumb Starbucks Coffee for operating without a health permit, a requirement of establishments serving food and beverages to the public. The store had remained open for four days before getting shut down.

If the store hadn’t been shut down, would it have been legal? It’s an interesting question regarding parody law. According to Mark McKenna, a University of Notre Dame law professor, the store would have been up against some big hurdles. “My gut tells me a court would be bothered by how much of the Starbucks trademark was used. It’s not just the word but they also made the store look just like it,” he explained.

Aaron Moss, a Los Angeles lawyer, shed more light on the reality of parody law, echoing what many following the story had suspected. “”Simply calling something a parody does not provide some kind of magical protection against infringement,” he said regarding the the company’s explanation. “You can’t just take a famous logo and trade dress, call it dumb and use it to sell the very same products in competition with the company you’re making fun of.”

This past year, Starbucks has gotten flack over his aggressive pursuit of copyright infringers, including a small bar for their sale of a beer called the “Frappucino.” The owner’s response to Starbucks went viral. “I guess that with there being a Starbucks on every corner of every block in every city that some people may think they could get a Starbucks at a local bar. So that was our mistake,” he glibly wrote in a response to their legal cease and desist, enclosing a check for $6 to cover all the profit he had made from the beer.

Many are hailing the Dumb Starbucks move as genius marketing. With no promotion, Fielder managed to hit on a concept that made national news within a matter of hours, and generated an idea that is bound to have long legs in online discussions and social media. Already, eBay is starting to proliferate with “dumb grande” and “dumb venti” cups.





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