Starbucks and other fast feeders with Election Day giveaways have discovered that their well-intentioned method of driving traffic is illegal. Starbucks on Saturday broke a 60-second spot from BBDO, New York, announcing it would give away free coffee today to anyone who says they voted.
But Washington state officials reached out to the Seattle-based java giant yesterday to notify the chain that state and federal election law prohibit any form of remuneration for voting.
"We weren't looking to get them prosecuted or anything," said Dave Ammons, spokesman, office of the secretary of state, in Washington. "It was friendly contact with Starbucks, which as you know is one of the homegrown icons in our state, so we definitely weren't trying to embarrass them or trying to get them in hot water."
But by the end of the day, Starbucks had altered its giveaway in Washington state, opening up the free tall-coffee offer to everyone, not just voters. "To ensure we are in compliance with election law, we are extending our offer to all customers who request a tall brewed coffee," Starbucks spokeswoman Lisa Passe said in a statement. "We hope there is a record turnout on Tuesday and look forward to celebrating with our customers over a great cup of coffee."
Today, Ms. Passe said Starbucks opened up its free coffee promotion across the country. The change wasn't well communicated, however, as baristas in Illinois and Virginia were asking for either confirmation or proof of voting before dispensing free joe. But if anecdotal evidence is any indicator, the promotion appears to be driving traffic. One of the Starbucks near Chicago's Grant Park, where Sen. Barack Obama will be speaking tonight, said it gave out more than 300 cups of coffee this morning alone.
Other marketers affected
A number of food marketers are also on the hook for freebies. Ben & Jerry's, Krispy Kreme and Chick-fil-A are doling out goodies to voters today. As a result of legal issues, however, Ben & Jerry's has opened up its offer to everyone in the country.
It's unclear if the legal buck stops here. Jamie Hais, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the department "generally does not confirm or deny investigations."
"It's odd other states aren't going after them," Mr. Ammons said. "It's clearly that sort of thing that while innocent and well-meaning, it does violate the federal statute."