Who would have thought that a plastic straw ban could cause such a stir?

That’s the problem. Americans use 500 million straws every day. Someone thought we should ban them to save the environment. No one asked if the catchy pollution solution would hurt anyone. Spoiler: It did.

How It’s Supposed to Work

The idea behind the plastic straw ban is a noble one. Environmentally conscious municipalities, and then companies, wanted to do something about pollution.

While plastic straws only constitute a small part of our overall plastic waste, their ban is easy to conceptualize. It’s a concrete concept. People can understand it quickly. Then, you’ve got their attention. More (and better) changes can follow because you’ve established a pattern of behavior.

I know because I have fallen for it before. Several years ago, I read about waste from paper towels. The helpful article included a plan to ban paper towels from your kitchen. After banning paper towels from my kitchen, I switched over from paper napkins to cloth ones. Then, I gave up plastic water bottles for reusable metal ones. To this day, I continue altering small behaviors to make my life slightly more eco-friendly.

That’s what the plastic straw ban was supposed to do until the conversation hit social media.

Starbucks and their Brand Sparks

The initiative has been building for a while with several cities and municipalities instituting bans on straws. Some people, with a prior interest in pollution, took notice and applauded the effort. But, the general public didn’t notice until Starbucks jumped into the conversation.

The brand always stays on the edge of socially conscious movements. Former president Howard Schultz calls these stunts Brand Sparks. Essentially, the brand generates buzz by becoming part of the cultural conversation. Sometimes, they even drive it.

When Starbucks announced that they would stop using straws in their drinks, the ban got a lot more attention. And it wasn’t just because of how ridiculous those sippy cups looked. People were furious at how the change would marginalize the disabled community.

Even today, no one is presenting a clear response to that issue.

The Groupthink Problem

If you talk to anyone who needs a plastic straw to drink, the problem is obvious. They really need straws. Denying straws borders on inhumane because they literally can’t drink.

It’s not something everyone thinks about. But, it does matter a lot for an important subset of our population. Somehow, we see this happen in campaigns again and again. A company launches an idea that seems great. Then, it quickly gets torn up on social media.

Think about…

After, we’re all left wondering why no one brought this up in brainstorming. People ask how a company could get all the way to a press release with such a clear flaw. (We all remember the McDLT.)

Is it

  • an issue of representation?
  • the rush to be first?
  • out-of-touch leadership?

I’ll tell you the problem. It’s groupthink.

While the outrage cycle, especially on Twitter, can be capricious, they’re usually rooted in an annoyance of an obvious oversight. This comes from groupthink.

Groupthink, mode of thinking in which individual members of small cohesive groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not the group members believe it to be valid, correct, or optimal. Groupthink reduces the efficiency of collective problem solving within such groups.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Irving Janis, a social psychologist, coined the term after studying extreme cases of poor decision-making. He looked at foreign policy issues like the Pearl Harbor bombing, the Vietnam War, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Groupthink occurs when the following conditions are present:

  • an illusion of invulnerability or of the inability to be wrong
  • the collective rationalization of the group’s decisions
  • an unquestioned belief in the morality of the group and its choices
  • stereotyping of the relevant opponents or out-group members
  • self-censorship
  • an illusion of unanimity

With this type of decision-making people…

  • neglect possible alternatives
  • focus on a narrow number of goals
  • ignore the risks involved in a particular decision
  • fail to seek out alternative information

Essentially, a tight team is limited by the fact that they want to be a tight team. No one wants to speak up. So, no one mentions obvious issues.

Continuing the Conversation

Working in marketing has put me in some of the worst groupthink situations. Why? It’s the path of least resistance.

When you are planning a campaign, it’s easy to pick a concept that you know will win the pitch. But, by winning the pitch, you may be losing the customer. Every team comes with it’s own set of dynamics. And it becomes easy to know how to please them over time. You know how to maintain the status quo. You know what ideas they love.

However, most board rooms and business owners don’t represent their actual target audiences. No one questions the client. No one pushes back. The creative launches and doesn’t deliver. Most of the time, these ideas just fall flat. They don’t resonate. So, they just disappear into media clutter.

In the worst scenarios, with high visibility, they are mocked, reviled or rebuked. That’s what happened when Starbucks, and other companies, tried to turn a social trend into a brand benefit.

Tomorrow’s Dialogue

While you can’t represent every view (every time in every meeting) someone should at least ask the question. Someone just needs to say, “Are we forgetting anything?”

  • “Is there an angle we didn’t cover?”
  • “Are there any potential issues with this idea?”
  • “Should we do a focus group?”

I really hope that some of these companies start a conversation with the members of our community who are most impacted by this change. It could really become a win-win, shining a light on both the impact of pollutants and the need for better accessibility for disabled individuals in public spaces.

And maybe next time, someone will speak up in a meeting and ask, “Is there anything or anyone we’re forgetting?”