Gee Whiz! The Starbucks "Cheer Chain Phenomenon" Might Be A Lame PR Stunt

Some cynical people, (not us, mind you) are starting to suspect that the news stories popping up all over the U.S. about Starbucks “cheer chains” might be planted by Starbuck’s PR team.

What is a “cheer chain?” You mean, you don’t already know? Why, it’s when someone randomly decides to pay for the coffee of the stranger behind them in line. Said stranger then, so moved by this completely altruistic gesture that was in no way motivated by Starbucks’ PR team, pays for the coffee of the person behind them! And so on! And it just keeps going until it the news of this remarkable show of human kindness reaches a reporter whose name is, (swear to god) Mary Pickels.

Starbucks denies feeding the stories to news outlets, claiming that the “Cheer Chain” stories just prove that there is “holiday cheer going around” and that the folks at Starbucks “are simply encouraging folks to pass on what comes around.”

Starbucks “Cheer Chain” Website

Cheer chain spreads goodwill in Starbucks drive-through
[Pittsburgh Tribune]
Man pays for coffee of customer behind him, starts chain [WIS10]
Latte it Forward? [Metafilter]
Is Savvy Marketing the Missing Link in Starbucks’ ‘Cheer Chains’? [RADAR]


Edit Your Comment

  1. KingPsyz says:

    While some of them might be started by a PR guy, I know of several people in my office that have partaken and even started so called cheer chains.

  2. SexierThanJesus says:

    Why should the last one in line get anything for free? Personal responsibility! Make your own choices! Free market!

    Oh, sorry. Thought this was a health insurance thread. Carry on, coffee-buyers.

  3. mr.dandy says:

    How do you know what the guy behind you wants or how much it costs? You’d have to ask him first, and if I were that guy I wouldn’t want to let a stranger buy me coffee. That leads to… obligations.

  4. alice_bunnie says:

    What if I’m buying a coffee and the person behind me is buying one of those $5 frappychini frou frou things? I’m not paying for that!

  5. youbastid says:

    Ah, there truly is no better way to spread holiday cheer than to make a non-charitable donation to the smug overpaid douchebag behind me talking so loud on his cell phone that the barista can’t hear what I’m saying.

  6. I like to start reverse-cheer chains, where I tell the barista, “Oh, s/he’ll pay for it,” as I smile at the person behind me. They’re usually on the phone so they don’t pay attention. Then I grab several biscotti and run like the wind!

  7. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    And to think, this happened after I got fired from the PR department for proposing the “Starbucks’ Daisy Chain.”

  8. @chris walters: MINT!

  9. humphrmi says:

    Come on. This post was really written by Dave Barry. You forgot to add “I am not making this up.” Fess up.

  10. Teapotfox says:

    A few weeks ago, I saw a little old lady approach the drive through line at Starbucks from an awkward direction and end up a few cars behind where she otherwise would have been… behind me. (Mind you, I would have let her in, but because of the angle of her approach, she really had no choice but to circle the building and get in the rear of the line.)

    I was having a fun day, buying decorations and stuff, and she looked cranky, cold and miserable. So when I got to the window I simply asked the barista how much the other lady’s order was and paid for it, too, just to do something nice.

    I almost never go to Starbucks, so it was only later that I realised I’d been given my latte in one of the holiday cups that describes a “cheer chain.”

  11. Squeezer99 says:

    maybe they should start pulling people over and giving them $5 gift cards lol

  12. DrGirlfriend says:

    The cheer ends when enterprising baristas start pocketing the extra money meant for the next dude’s coffee and charge him as normal.

  13. Me. says:

    I used to work in a drive-thru Sbux and this does happen more than you would think. If someone comes through with a big order for their office, they’ll pay for the next person’s drink for being patient or if someone accidentally cuts someone else off…

    And to address Alice_Bunnie’s concern re: a more expensive drink… Those are usually the people who say, “Oh, that’s nice” and end the chain!

  14. neithernor says:

    @mr.dandy: “Oh, that’s great, because the person behind you wants 20 gift cards!”

  15. Amelie says:

    I find the name “Cheer Chain” so grating. Sorry Starbucks, but my random acts of kindness, do not include paying for people who can easily pay for themselves.

  16. realserendipity says:

    I dont work for Starbucks and prior to today had no idea what a cheer chain is. I have however, paid for the person behind me in the drive through before. Just my way of hopefully brightening someone’s day and maybe the hope that they will pass on something nice to someone else.

  17. HRHKingFriday says:

    @realserendipity: I’ve thought about that, but then I realize the kids running the drive through could still charge and then pocket the person behind me’s order. Plus you never know when someone behind you is ordering for the whole office.

    Wow, I’m cheap *and* cynical.

  18. lightaugust says:

    I’m so confused. I’ve just been doing my neighbor’s laundry in overpriced cold water laundry detergent. Proctor and Gamble sure seemed to like it.

  19. overpriced says:

    I don’t understand why anyone would want to buy someone else an overpriced cup of coffee, not to mention why you would even want to buy yourself an overpriced cup. What is wrong with you people?

  20. Blueoysterjoe says:

    Nothing gets me in the Holiday Mood(tm) faster than a company leveraging cheer.

  21. wallspray says:

    I don’t understand how anyone thinks of this as cheerful? They are ALL buying a coffee, whether for themselves or for the next person. If just one person does this, then yes, it’s a random act of kindness, and someone gets a free coffee. But if everyone is doing it, no one gets anything for free. Its just a big thank-you-fest. You shouldn’t have to make a moral decision (should I continue to be nice or take the free coffee and be mean) at starbucks.

  22. MeOhMy says:

    I saw a story about this over the weekend on a major national news program. It reeked of a setup – a random patron had allegedly started the “cheer chain” to calm the angry person behind him in the drive-through line. The “cheer chain” allegedly lasted all day. Yet the news reporter was there during daylight hours. If it gets dark around 5:30 at the latest this time of year, how did the reporter know it went on all day if she was on the site sometime during the daylight hours?

    Oh and the real kicker? The alleged starter of the “cheer chain” was there in his car for an interview? Was he sitting there all day?

  23. suburbancowboy says:

    Here is my cheer for the day. I save at least 50 bucks a month by not drinking coffee at all.

    Merry Christmas sir! I have purchased your ridiculously overpriced coffee for you. A Christmas Goose for everyone!!!
    shouldn’t coffee be like 50 cents a cup. Uphill in the snow, off my lawn blah blah blah.

    P.S. Aside from cotton, Coffee is the crop most heavily sprayed with pesticides. Yum.

    P.S.S. – I thought all holiday cheer was being brought to you by Toyota this year.

  24. Amelie says:

    @suburbancowboy said: “Aside from cotton, Coffee is the crop most heavily sprayed with pesticides.

    DuH! That’s why I drink fair-trade organic coffee.

  25. carpediemcls says:

    I don’t think doing something nice for someone has anything to do with how they react/if they are even thankful/motives. I think it sort of takes away from the whole generosity idea when you start going there…because then why are you doing it? To satisfy yourself? To look good to others? Whether or not people are grateful–big deal. You do generous things, because its what fellow human beings should do for each other. Granted, I don’t agree with being naive, but I don’t like Starbucks making this a marketing benefit for themselves, or all this freakin’ complaining about being “nice”. And it shouldn’t just happen during the holidays.

  26. seanblood says:

    I actually just recently (about three weeks ago) got a job as a barista at starbucks, at a brand new store. I dont know about the whole PR story thing, but i was on register the other day and a guy came in and gave me five dollars to pay for the next customers drinks (i didnt at the time even know about the whole cheer chain thing). it didnt get a chain of people doing the same thing started, but the next guy who came in was monumentally impressed, and kept going on about how he used to do that randomly for people a long time ago, and this is the first time something like that has ever happened to him. I thought it was interesting.

  27. delphi_ote says:

    I’ll start to care when people start doing this with alcohol.

  28. forgottenpassword says:

    You know what? The cynical part of me would automatically assume that IF I paid for the guy’s coffee behind me (in the drive thru lane)….. the drive thru attendant would just keep my money & still allow the guy behind me to pay for his order.

  29. Jackasimov says:

    And last years Starbucks Frappuccino Choco-Circle Jerk was such a failure. You’d think they’d learn.

  30. spinachdip says:

    @delphi_ote: But we already do. When we want to get laid.

  31. swalve says:

    My “cheer chain” is making a rude face while I’m waiting for someone to finish their impossibly complicated order. I was in one a few weeks ago where an off-duty police officer was getting her free $40 worth of beans ground. 10 minutes, and she didn’t even have to pay. Thanks for nothing!

  32. TMurphy says:

    I don’t see how the marketing people fooled Starbucks to push this. If someone ahead of you is going to pay for your coffee, you feel inclined to buy something cheaper. Everyone there is there to buy a coffee, whether for themselves or not. This just makes everyone more likely to spend less.

    I suppose the drive-thru example means you might be ordering without a way to know your caffeine is paid for. But, broadcasting this will make people suspect it could be going on, and more likely spend less in case someone else is paying. If it goes on in-store, then clearly people will be aware of what’s going on.

    I would like to see some numbers on this and see if it actually does anything for Starbucks’ bottom line. …Not that I think they need more money…

    I also agree that this is capitalist-tainted good will at its best. Not that capitalism is bad, but it doesn’t mix with charity. Buy a Starbucks for the guy sitting at the corner who may never afford one. Better yet, buy him something more worthwhile with that $5.

  33. dantsea says:

    The cheer chains are totally real. I swear. It happened just the other day at the Starbucks it was at and then we all cried as Christmas Shoes played because it reminded us of the real spirit of Christmas. True story.

  34. dantsea says:

    Oh, and then OMG PONIES appeared and we all flew through the skies to our offices!

  35. TechnoDestructo says:

    “Pay It Forward” was a really good book and an even better movie.

    And its existence makes this suck even more.

  36. Maulleigh says:

    Bah. Humbug. If Starbucks really gave a sh*t it would pay for everyones coffee.

  37. BigBoat says:

    I can’t believe people are concerned about paying for the next guy when there’s a chance they’re buying for the office or something.
    “I’ll just get the next guy’s too”
    “Well sir, it’s a big order. The grand total for both of you is $92.85”
    “Wow. I cannot afford that. Yet, I made an oral commitment. Guess I’ll be eating slim for the next month.”

    For real? Seriously? I’d be a little more amused/annoyed if I didn’t know the people who are concerned about this likely event have approximately a zero chance of buying anyone coffee. Why rationalize it?

  38. lemur says:

    @dantc: Your story is obviously fake because the cheer chain does not end with ponies but with winged unicorns.

  39. crankymediaguy says:

    This would be WAY more Chrismassy if, instead of customers buying coffee for the person behind them, the super-mega-unbelievably profitable Starbucks Corporation was buying the fucking coffee.

    As it is, no one is really making out, as they are all buying coffee for the person behind them. AND Starbucks, which can buy its own damn advertising, is getting free publicity out of it.

    Bah humbug.

  40. captnkurt says:


    Ponies? Unicorns? Bah!

    Homer: (Sarcastic) “Oh! I’m making people happy! I’m Mr Candy Man, from gumdrop house on loooooollypop laaaaaaane!” (Slams Door.)(Pause.)(Reopens Door) “By the way I was being sarcastic!” (Slams Door)

  41. firefoxx66 says:

    I don’t know about any ‘cheer chains’, but last night I bought a gift card and a latte from Starbucks, and when the lady forgot to ring up the latte (just rang up the gift card) she said not to worry about it and essentially gave me a free drink. Which was very kind of her and definitely perked up my day.

  42. geekfather says:

    When I’m buying my daily dose, if there’s a military member in line behind me I always buy their drink. (Sometimes for firefighters, too.)

  43. ManicPanic says:

    This is sad, people. I read the cup and I thought “I would like to do this!” and be part of helping to make someone else’s day. I worked retail and sometimes it was the smallest thing-simply BEING NICE to someone who was having a rough day was enough to make their day better. I know it would make my day to have my coffee paid for and I would be glad to pay for the coffee of the person behind me if it would make theirs. Say what you want about it being overpriced blah blah blah it is my nectar.

    whatever happened to Goodwill towards others?

  44. AlisonAshleigh says:

    Maybe its just me, but I really don’t give a fuck about the person in line behind me.
    If I’m going to do something nice, buying some asshole yuppie coffee is not it.

  45. Musician78 says:

    What a weird PR stunt. It certainly didn’t make me think, “I need to go to Starbucks”, even though I do indeed love Starbucks coffee. Actually, I think when I first heard it, the sound waves had entered my head and they registered for about a fraction of a fraction of a second. I immediately digressed to “I wonder if my Radiohead cd is in yet” (or at least something quite similar).

  46. Musician78 says:

    And no, Alison, it is not just you….

  47. econobiker says:

    This is nothing new IF you lived/ grew up in NJ and paid for the car behind yours toll at the godforsaken cash toll booths on the Garden State Parkway (prior to the booth confusion caused by tokens and electronic payments.) I remember several Christmases of my father doing this while driving my family north bound to visit my grandmothers.

    The only difference is that there was no corporate PR hacks to crow about it…

  48. econobiker says:

    My bad: “were” no corporate PR hacks to crow about it…

  49. RandomHookup says:

    @humphrmi: And let’s not forget that “Cheer Chain Phenomenon” would be a good name for a band.

  50. DrGirlfriend says:

    @RandomHookup: beat me to it!

  51. meadandale says:


    Since you’re standing in line with them, doesn’t that also make YOU an asshole yuppie?

  52. SeattleGuy says:


    OMG I think I peed my pants just a little…..

  53. AlisonAshleigh says:

    I actually do not think I have EVER been into a starbucks, to be honest.

  54. teapartys_over says:

    This would just make me mad. It’s such a smug, empty gesture – “Oh, look at me and my holiday spirit, buying you a drink!” Just go away. It’s gift enough to me that I don’t have to smile and act grateful for your 4 bucks, which I am then expected to turn around and donate to the person behind me anyway. I just want to get my coffee and get out, thanks.

  55. frogpelt says:

    Why not just have the first person in line buy the last person in line a drink in addition to their own and skip all those people in the middle who aren’t really getting the of it benefit anyway?

    Just a thought.

  56. Peeved Guy says:

    What a bunch of friggen cynical a-holes! You all need to lighten the fuck up.

    My wife and I have done this before (at Starbucks, even) and –GASP– it wasn’t even around the holidays! Sometimes it’s just nice to do something spontaneously nice for a stranger.

    If the person in front of you at whatever store decided to pay for part or all of your order, would you be as vitriolic as you are being here, or would you see it as a random act of kindness?

  57. smallestmills says:

    If everyone is buying someone else a coffee, doesn’t it kind of cancel itself out after a while? Maybe they should have rules, like, you can only buy a stranger a coffee if
    1) there’s only one other person waiting in line or
    2) there’s no one so it’s totally anonymous so you’ll have that kind stranger thing going on
    3) the person getting the free coffee, if they don’t keep the chain going, has to promise to help someone in need by signing a contract or something, or perhaps start a new chain somewhere else then come back and prove it so the “random act of kindness” does not go unrewarded.

  58. kwsdurango says:

    I may be wrong about this – I’ve been out of the USA for a while – but wasn’t there a commercial on TV where a woman pays for a drink or lunch for the guy behind her in a McDonald’s drive through?

    It seems a nice gesture, but immediately loses all value when it becomes contrived, expected, preached, marketed, etc.

    The value is in the spontaneity. The minute someone gives it a name (particularly something really stupid like “cheer chain”) – and recipients are “expected” to repeat it, it’s crap.

  59. mk says:

    if this much energy were spent on tutoring kids, or feeding the hungry

  60. rjhiggins says:

    I’ve got nothing against Starbucks, and don’t really think they started this whole thing (though they’re probably happy to promote it), but…

    How about each person in line skip their $5 mocha-soy-foam-accino and donate that money to a food bank or homeless shelter? Or just hand it to a person on the bus who looks like they could use it? Now THAT would be in the spirit of the holidays.

    Just buying an expensive coffee for someone who can easily afford it (and after someone just bought yours) is a silly exercise in making people feel like they’ve done something good for the world.

  61. econobiker says:


    I’ve seen the Starbucks kiosks and stores but have yet to go in one on purpose though I did read the book or article about the guy who created them. From my view they took a commodity and turned it into a specialty and attempt to fill the human need for connection with others in a high tech world.

    My grandfather would have spit on specialty coffee- “youse drink you coffee out of a mug or a paper cup”

  62. sibertater says:

    I work for SBUX and I could tell you some stories.

  63. spryte says:

    Ugh…”Cheer Chain” is too corny for words and sounds like something from an SNL skit or something.

    That being said, it is a nice thing to do a random person a random favor. And by the way, all you “OMG I NEVER go to Starbucks people”…bragging about not going to Starbucks or thinking their coffee is bad is annoying and really old. We get it, you are very cool and non-conformist, yay for you.

    Also, the rage-spewing about people who buy expensive coffee is getting trite. If a person wants a complicated and/or more-like-a-dessert $5 coffee drink, what the hell is it to you? Most people who talk crap about that probably don’t think twice about spending $20, $30 or more on booze on any given night, and that’s even more of a waste of money IMO.

  64. DanceWithGoats says:

    I called a friend who works for Starbucks marketing who participated in this “PR stunt.” Not sure I agree. I blogged about it here:


  65. Trai_Dep says:

    I was involved in a “cheer chain” a while ago, though of a different stripe. Involving sleep-overs, feigned sleep, wandering hands and barely-believable excuses of “experimentation”.

    Annoyed Starbucks didn’t make me a certificate, though.