Was Jonathan's Card A Secret Starbucks Viral Marketing Campaign?

Editor-in-Chief
08.11.11

On Tuesday we told you about Jonathan’s Card, a neat-sounding, pay it forward-esque project created by app developer Jonathan Stark. In short, the initiative provides free cups of coffee to strangers by having anonymous people online put money on Stark’s Starbucks card — other anonymous people can then use a photo of the card’s barcode on their phones to make purchases at Starbucks.

Admittedly, I was quite taken by the cause. I was romanced by the notion that it was a genuine effort by a random guy to do something nice for strangers, to drop a little ray of sunshine on the world. I even donated some of my own money to the cause. So, of course — OF COURSE — the whole thing now appears like it could be a completely inorganic secret plot cooked up by a behemoth corporation (Starbucks) to get consumers to buy their product and feel good about it along the way.

The discovery was made by Andrew Hetzel, who runs a blog called “Coffee Business Strategies.” He did some amateur sleuthing and discovered that Andrew Stark is a VP at a company called Mobiquity Inc., which describes its purpose as “conceive[ing], execute[ing] and deliver[ing] impactful Mobile Computing solutions…” that, “capture real-time behavioral insights through analytics, profiling and modeling.” And one of Mobiquity’s top corporate clients for its Orwellian-sounding services is, you guessed it, Starbucks.

Now all of this is circumstancial evidence, obviously, but the company pulled down the clients page of its website and deleted the Google cache version of it just hours after Hetzel floated his theory. The screengrab above was taken before the cache had been erased. Why would the company do that if it wasn’t trying to hide something? Coincidence?

Still, Jonathan Stark is vigorously denying that anything shady is going on. On the Jonathan’s Card website, he wrote: “For the record, Jonathan’s Card, Jonathan Stark (me), this site, or anything else I’ve ever said or done is totally not affiliated with Starbucks.” He also posted a lengthy defense on his Facebook page insisting that Jonathan’s Card was all his doing.

Hi all,

It’s come to my attention that someone has made claims that the Jonathan’s Card project is a viral marketing campaign sponsored by Starbucks. I’ve also seen comments on Facebook and Twitter from people who have suggested that this is some sort of scam, or that I’m hoarding free coffee coupons, etc… These sorts of responses are a small minority of the feedback I’ve received so far, but I feel they need to be addressed.

Let me be 100% clear:

The Jonathan’s Card experiment was completely my idea, Starbucks had absolutely nothing to do with it, and until recently, I was scared to death that Starbucks might sue the crap out of me. Furthermore, I’m not making any money from this project (quite the opposite, in fact) and I’m currently working out how to donate the hundreds of free coffee coupons that have been earned.

I am deeply hurt by accusations that I’ve been acting out of self-interest or on behalf of Starbucks, partly because it calls my integrity into question, but more importantly because it threatens to destroy the good feelings that have been built up by thousands of people who have participated in this wonderful experiment.

I’m not sure how I can convince skeptics that I’m on the level, but out of respect for everyone who has believed in and been touched by this project I feel obligated to open myself up to whatever scrutiny doubters would like to subject me to.

While doing so might be disruptive to my friends and family, I feel strongly that I owe it to believers everywhere to take a stand against cynics who are too jaded to believe that anyone would ever do something nice for others for the simple reason that it feels good.

Sorry for the rant… thanks for listening,

j

I want to believe. Really, I do. But I can’t get past the fact that Stark’s company took down its client page — something he didn’t address in his Facebook post — mere hours after the viral marketing accusations were floated. As much as it pains me to say it, I sort of wish I could get my $15 back.

This gives me yet another reason to hate stealth viral marketing — something I already loathe with the intensity of a million white hot suns — because even if this isn’t a viral marketing campaign, the mere fact that viral marketing exists serves to plant the seeds of doubt, thereby ruining it.

Viral marketing needs to die in a f*cking fire. Seriously.

(Thanks for the tip, Aaron.)

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