We smelled a familiar rat the first time we read it: I Am Jonathan’s Starbucks Card: A Social Payment Experiment (With Free Coffee) | TechCrunch. A programmer/writer publicly offers up his Starbucks Card as a social experiment for people around the world to contribute to and withdraw from his pre-paid Starbucks account. It just sounded too conveniently like the Starbucks’ Pay-it-forward-gate of a few years ago, where media outlets took the bait hook, line, and sinker in different markets over the period of several years.

My Starbucks Card -- a new covert social marketing programAnd just as every other media outlet on the planet picked up this story (here, here, here, here, and here — for example), who was already on top of the hoax? None other than occasional CoffeeRatings.com reader, Andrew Hetzel, noting how the programmer/writer’s public relations & app company, Mobiquity, has performed heavily promoted work on behalf of Starbucks, etc.: Starbucks and the ‘Starkbucks’ Jonathan’s Card Viral Marketing Campaign | coffee business strategies.

Conspiracy theorists may be one of our bigger pet peeves. But if you know any of the history here, this readily fits a pattern that has gone back for years — just with a new tactic. And now, as then, someone points out that calling out the authenticity of this clandestine marketing operation diminishes all the goodwill behind the effort. This smokescreen retaliation came from the same playbook for every Starbucks-seeded “pay it forward” story in the local presses not long ago.

Another of the unmistakable fingerprints is Starbucks’ complete lack of acknowledgment that the phenomenon even exists. Most other supposedly social-savvy businesses would pick up on such a story and highlight it as a feel-good for their legions of loyal customers. But with Starbucks, instead there’s deafening silence — as if they’re more worried about ensuring the credibility of the story by distancing themselves, rather than acting as an agent of promoting its supposed feel-good causes.

Starbucks pleads the fifth, opting for plausible deniability should Mobiquity take the fall

Oops -- Mobility forgets that the Internet cannot be turned off, even if you tryFor all the feel-good altruism to be defended here, why is Starbucks completely turning its back on the story? If questioning the story’s authenticity hurts the altruism behind it, where does Starbucks’ complete silence on the matter fall on the “you’re either with us or against us” spectrum? And even more suspicious, this week Mobiquity took down all content on their Web site indicating their Starbucks affiliation after the story broke. (Screencaps saved fortunately by Andrew, and shown here.) And please do read Mr. Hetzel’s blog for gems like all the pro-Starbucks comments on his post that he traced back to corporate IP addresses within Starbucks Inc.

No matter what, you have to admire the Starbucks marketing team for their savvy in pushing the envelope on effective social marketing. Over the years, Starbucks has benefitted from a number of seemingly independent citations in the press affiliating the Starbucks brand with feel-good stories of local altruism. One of their greatest strokes of genius is suggesting that questioning the authenticity of these stories is a vote against altruism. Who could be against that? It’s almost as genius as the religious argument that a lack of scientific evidence is a foundation for religious faith — and hence a requirement for being a truer believer.