The Ethics Scrooge On The Starbucks Pay-It-Forward Ponzi Scheme


The Ethics Scrooge here.

If you think I’m going to get all misty eyed about the “random acts of kindness” fun and games Florida Starbucks customers have been amusing themselves with lately,  you are sadly mistaken.

The happy-talk story of the week—and I admit, the nation needed one—concerned a St. Petersburg, Florida Starbucks where an early morning customer at the drive-through window decided to “pay it forward” and buy coffee for the next person in line.That customer emulated the spirit of the Kevin Spacey weepie,  and bought a drink for the next person in line at the drive-through, and so it continued throughout the day, with 378 customers purchasing drinks for the strangers in line behind them, a so-called altruism chain that lasted 11 hours.


I am unimpressed and unmoved. Granted, paying for the over-priced coffee of someone wealthy enough to drink over-priced coffee is better than poking them with a stick, but this is fake charity, and that’s all it is. Let’s see: the average Starbucks order is about four bucks (probably more, but let’s keep it simple.) If those 378 people had contributed that amount to the local Salvation Army, it would have meant about 1500 dollars for people who can’t afford coffee at all. This was pretend generosity, a game for the well-to-do. It also was reminiscent of a reverse Ponzi Scheme, which ends when someone takes their free coffee and runs, as some anonymous spoilsport, much derided in the media, finally did.

The Starbucks ” generosity chain,” which is being emulated elsewhere, made participants feel all warm and fuzzy when they actually sacrificed little, accomplished less, and used the experience to say, “Well, I’ve done my good deed for the day!” It’s not ethics, it’s coercion. It’s not charity either, since the recipients were not in any kind of need. Random acts of kindness are useful if they develop the habit of compassion and kindness toward fellow human beings who need a hand, assistance, or encouragement.  This? It’s a stunt. The second St. Petersburg “pay-it-forward” Starbucks chain was stopped by Peter Schorsch, a local blogger who later wrote that he objected to what he perceived as Starbucks shaming its customers. Not surprisingly, Starbucks workers were telling each customer that someone paid for their coffee and asking if they’d like to  “pay-it-forward” as well.

For the real beneficiary of these “random acts that are no longer random once you are being directed what to do and informed that you will be harshing everyone’s mellow if you don’t” was, of course, Starbucks, which earned $14.9 billion last year.

And this new “pay-it-forward” gimmick should be a gold min, Mr. Marley!  Get your overpriced coffee and your dose of self-esteem, all at one stop!

Bah. Humbug.


Sources: Huffington Post, Bay News

Graphic: St. John the Baptist School

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

86 thoughts on “The Ethics Scrooge On The Starbucks Pay-It-Forward Ponzi Scheme

  1. So let me get this straight, the first person bought the second a coffee, so the end result is if 5 or 50 thousand go through before one finally doesn’t pass it on only one person really bought another a coffee? So one coffee for another was actually bought?

    • Yup. That was the whole thing. It gets me all choked up.

      You will not be surprised that it was NPR where I first heard this being hailed as a veritable Festivus miracle. You know, that tax-funded radio network for people who buy 8 buck lattes?

      • What a waste of valuable. ……oh never mind, it’s not like the media would have used the time for anything else worthwhile.

        Even as a feel good story once taken in it leaves a bad after taste.

        • Even as a feel good story once taken in it leaves a bad after taste.
          I don’t like the Sheeple undertones.
          I would say no just because of that.
          Plus, Pay It Forward is supposed to be spontaneous.

    • Yep, the only “charity” is the initial payer. Anyone along the line could violate the spirit and really screw the previous person by ordering coffee for their coworkers also… but not doing so isn’t charity.

  2. Not to mention the fact that the woman who broke the chain just wanted a plain cup of coffee, and was understandably uninterested in buying a venti decaf soy cappuccino with a double caramel swirl or whatever the person behind might order.

  3. My take is a bit different. Every time I stop my car and let someone in front of me (even when I don’t have to), or hold open that door for the 5,000 people (with children who are moving painfully slowly), I don’t just do it because I am a nice person. I do it because I really feel that if I put people in a positive frame of mind, then they will do more positive things that day, and then other people will benefit, etc., etc.

    All that being said, Starbucks can go to hell. I dislike any place that comes up with its own lingo. No, I do not want a venti — I want a large! I remember when Cosi decided it wasn’t going to sell bagels, it was only going to sell “squagels.” I refused to say sqaugel — because that’s dumb. Now, Cosi calls them bagels. I assume I took part in a successful unorganized revolt on that issue.

    • Every time I stop my car and let someone in front of me (even when I don’t have to), or hold open that door for the 5,000 people (with children who are moving painfully slowly), I don’t just do it because I am a nice person. I do it because I really feel that if I put people in a positive frame of mind, then they will do more positive things that day, and then other people will benefit, etc., etc.
      I do the same things.
      For the reasons above but also to improve my own Karma.
      When I was learning to drive (very long time ago) I was sitting in traffic with my mother as the co-pilot.
      I wasn’t letting anyone squeeze out in front of me.
      Suddenly my mom said, “let that lady out out, I can see the kids in the back seat, she probably needs someone to cut her a break today.”
      I still use that principle now.

      • Excellent! I have briefly skimmed it, but will read it in detail and respond in a few days. This is a weekend that my wife works 3 x 12 hour shifts in a row at the hospital, and watching the baby boy combined with household maintenance is not conducive to being involved on the blog other than late at night when I’m exhausted. Especially now that we are halfway through our Netflix “12 Years a Slave” (which I have thoughts on) and I am about to crash before a “busy Sunday of rest”.

          • Sorry… I guess it isn’t that big a deal, I just know at my work place I was extremely irritated at the demands to know how I have given my time or where I give my money (my business and no one else’s) as a replacement for why I refuse to give in to a narcissistic push for attention and a trivial feeling of “community”. Then told I was a sour sport because I didn’t want to take part in what I felt was a meaningless gesture that advanced all sorts of nonsense while not really advancing “charity”.

            Gads we’re lost as a society.

            But yes, brilliant marketing move by the originators of the craze.

            I’m reminded of the bumper stickers that all said “Support the Troops” that became the craze of the 00’s (for a variety of sincere and also disingenuous reasons). Fellow soldiers and fellow Commissioned Officers all began putting on custom bumper stickers that said “Support the Troops: Be One” as a reaction.

            I just don’t think statements of support mean anything without putting some hide in the game. And then, when one puts hide in the game, why crow about it? I got sick of the term “solidarity” because of this. I’ve learned that “solidarity” means “I agree with you, but I won’t lift a finger about it, therefore my agreement is meaningless”. Well, dumping ice on your head is meaningless — but you are still doing it. Why are you doing it? *ahem* narcissist *ahem*.

              • Indeed. My childhood (with my mother’s family grounded in the Williamsburg area) consisted of Summer Vacations to that area. For 2-4 weeks each summer, living in Lightfoot, Virginia, my dad (the history hobbyist) would visit every available battlefield. Yearly, and I mean Yearly, my hajj consisted of Petersburg, Williamsburg and Yorktown.

                I even had the benefit of telling my friends that George Washington was my granddad (as my actual granddad was the official George Washington re-enactor for Williamsburg in the late 70s through the 80s until he passed).

                  • Very much so.

                    As much as the American Heartland may stretch between Chicago & New Orleans (and about 400 mile expanse to either side of that line), its Cultural Heritage and Core (barring a huge paradigm shift) will always be the Boston-Washington Corridor and stretching down into the Virginian seaboard with an minor anchor in Charlestown.

                • As you know, there are more original Civil War structures in Petersburg than anywhere else, and the ghosts are thick there. It’s all crumbling, because the city is very poor. Why doesn’t Donald Trump do a Williamsburg there and have a genuine and positive legacy other than behaving like an ass? Most people, even in the area, hardly know about the battle or the crater. Thank goodness for “Cold Mountain.”

                  • Valid point. Our history isn’t maintained well.

                    Ethical balance point:

                    History of America VS the very-American need to develop *current* communities as the market demands.

                    • (of course there is no push to maintain history when all it is is a bunch of white supremacists that hate everyone but whites and want to force Christianity and whiteness on everyone else).

                    • Not to sound sexist, but I think on average, or at least as a general rule, Vaudeville 101 is out the door in marriage as most wives don’t see themselves as straight men to their husband’s comic foil…

                      (or did I get that backwards…)

                    • In Petersburg, though, developing the history would enrich the community, bring investment, create jobs. But when the people who live there don’t know or appreciate the history (this was related to me by the (sad and frustrated) city historian), it’s nearly hopeless.

                    • They are focused on the present, like everyone else. I grew up in suburban Boston, where every town flogged every single shred of history unique to the locale, and everywhere else too. In Arlington, the one Revolutionary War landmark was a house where four Minute Men were shot by the British while hiding from them in a closet. Every class visited that damn house—hardly an inspiring tale—every year. Arlington was desperate to find more landmarks to compete with Lexington, Concord and Cambridge. But the city and the community has to make it important. They have a small tax base in Petersburg, largely black, and uninterested in celebrating a Confederate city’s past, or even learning about it….or giving a damn. And that’s one reason they will stay poor.

                    • It’s the whole area, believe it or not. 40-45 years ago, I lived in Richmond and when I suggested a trip to Petersburg to see the crater, I was greeted with a chorus of “What crater?” This was from a dorm room at Richmond Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth U. College students, most from the surrounding area. Frightening, actually.

                    • A fair amount. The crater now is more of an impression…there’s not much depth, but the size is apparent, and it’s impressive. You can walk down and look into the tunnels in a couple of places. It’s a fascinating battlefield, one of the best.

                    • Ought to go. Not only is the park great but the city is pretty cool as well. There is a museum in town with a diorama showing the battlefield and that explains why the Union was unable to take it by storm.

                    • Since the Trace was established? You must be old! The Natchez Trace is at least a millennium old! That’s back when Dr Pepper was just applying for medical school!

                    • I was going to mention my GRANDPARENTS going to the State park up in Tennessee when I was around 6 or so, but figured that would be unnecessarily cruel.

                    • Just went through both in May and they seemed to have recovered nicely, as has New Orleans. However, my Uber-liberal brother-in-law, who lives in Austin, persists in describing NO as “devastated”. Blames George Bush, and capitalism, of course

                    • He not only shifted the blame, he actually got himself re-elected as mayor. He campaigned here in Houston because a big chunk of his voter base was here, mainly living off charity and conducting their usual criminal gang activities.

                    • He needs to study a few facts of the case, Dragon! Remind him that President Bush was calling then-Governor Blanco as Katrina barreled down on Louisiana, asking her if she wanted federal assistance. By the time she made up her mind, the storm was already there and it was impossible to do anything until after it had passed. He might also ask why it was that then-Mayor Nagin (now in a federal prison) just sat and did nothing, despite an existing plan of action for evacuating New Orleans. Show him the pictures of 600 ruined school buses, half submerged, that never took anyone anywhere. A lot of other things!

                    • See Jack’s comment, Steven. Yes he does need to do SOMETHING. Remember, he is making these claims to somebody who just drove through there in May. He hasn’t been there in something like 20 years. And, according to him, Nagin was only convicted because he was black.

                    • Nagin wasn’t even indicted for criminal negligence that led to God knows how many deaths in his own city. He was convicted of just being a damn crook! I hate to disillusion your brother, but black men can be pretty good at that sort of thing, too. In fact, one of the biggest criminal extortion rings in America is called “the Black Caucus”!

                    • I’ve been trying to disillusion him for years. Pointing out where his logic slips, presenting facts to counter his beloved opinions, etc. Nothing works. He’s an idiot and that’s pretty much the bottom line.

  4. Because only one cup of coffee was actually a gift I thought this was just a publicity stunt. Real charity begins by not assuming someone is out to get the better of you. You try to see others in the best possible light. The most charitable people I know commit their time to helping others succeed and don’t simply write a check. Charity requires personally sacrificing something of real value to create real value for others.

    • So would a multi-billionaire, for whom money has literally no value as they would never spend it all in their lifetime, who gave $200,000 to a cause not be charitable?

  5. Tex:
    First, let me give you my definition of charity: An activity that is designed to improve the condition of another less fortunate than you, that also requires a measurable sacrifice on your part, without concern for the economic or physical consequences to yourself or having an expectation of receiving a direct benefit in return – other than a feeling of goodwill .

    If I do something that is a good thing to do, benefits others, and it involves no measurable sacrifice then I should have done it anyway. I am not saying that contributing money is never being charitable. If a pauper buys a sandwich with his last dollar and shares half of his only sandwich to help someone else who is hungry to me that is real charity. If a multi-millionaire gives his/her umbrella during a rainstorm to a homeless person that too is charity. However, when the supposed act of charity is to avoid having others make you feel bad for not contributing then it is not charity but payment to avoid personal pain.

    I think that many contribute either because they are cajoled or shamed into doing something and they really have no commitment into changing the future for those they think the money will help, or they receive something they personally value in return. Examples of this abound in business. They include: When the firm wants to get 100% participation in the United Way or other campaign and remind you of that goal weekly until you submit, an employee gets time off or promotional opportunities are tied to levels of community service, when the co-worker is selling candy bars to support a non-profit of their choice, or overpriced golf tournaments to raise money.

    Almost every community has a non profit with a sign shaped like a thermometer indicating how much money has been raised to date. That sign is designed to reinforce in those that give that they are appreciated but such signs also are designed to remind people that they have NOT given.

    As for the multi-billionaire that gives a large donation to a cause of his/her choosing even though the amount will have little impact on the billionaire’s lifestyle, there is still an impact and thus a measurable sacrifice. The billionaire will have the amount of the donation unavailable to be used to make the billionaire’s life even better. However, if the multi-billionaire gave pro-bono services in lieu of cash payment he or she might not get the publicity desired and tax benefits. To me the latter is more like charity because of the potential opportunity cost could be magnified a thousand fold because the multi-billionaire is not focused on the next big deal while providing the pro-bono services.

    Imagine for a moment what might have been the case in Ferguson MO. if the police department officers had donated time to work side by side the non-profits in that community interacting with the residents in a non-police role instead of making an anonymous contribution to the United Way via payroll deduction. I think the relationships might be significantly better. Personal contact helps everyone get a better understanding of the real contributions everyone makes.

    What if teachers and others with certain skills that have the potential for improving the long-term human condition donated time and skills rather than cash? I believe the level of commitment would increase as well as the outcome.

    • Nice. Gifts as PR stunts may be classified as charitable, but the foundations famous people start frequently have unencouraging ratings on the charity navigator. Work in the trenches I value not than waving a checkbook or camera.

  6. The Starbucks ” generosity chain,” which is being emulated elsewhere, made participants feel all warm and fuzzy when they actually sacrificed little, accomplished less, and used the experience to say, “Well, I’ve done my good deed for the day!” It’s not ethics, it’s coercion.
    They need to come to my part of FL where there is no Starbucks but rather a McDonald’s Cafe.
    What you get there is not Pay-It-Forward Faux Kindess.
    You get customers in line who scream out of their car windows, “move up!, move up!” (even when moving up will accomplish nothing), drivers who will tap your bumper with their car, or honk their horn, or shake their fists at you.
    Occasionally,, one of them will drive over the curb.

    I should mention that those customers are always seniors and and always male.
    I don’t know if it is low blood sugar (hangry) or if it is overuse of the new gel testosterone (hormone muscles).

  7. This happened to me today at a drive thru Starbucks in North Carolina. It caught me completely off guard. I ordered an iced coffee and waited behind two cars. When I got up to the window the barista said, “that’s going to be free today. The people in front of you bought your coffee because the people in front of them bought theirs.” I of course asked how much was the order behind me, and she said $9.32. Holy hell, that was WAY more than I was prepared to spend as my coffee was only $2.62. But I TOTALLY felt shamed by the whole ordeal but to the barista’s credit she did say I was under no obligation to pay for the lady behind me. To which I responded by saying thanks and driving off, still feeling like an asshole. Your post helped me put this silly scheme in perspective. Thanks

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