The Economist’s free coffee drive done in bad taste?

By Claudia Ang

You’re walking down a busy street during lunch hour.  A man approaches you. “Free coffee?” he asks. You’re startled, and then you realize that he isn’t alone. There’s an entire truck right behind him giving out cups of coffee to the public. What’s going on? you think. It takes a while to sink in. It isn’t just normal coffee. You find that it’s free civet coffee in exchange for an introductory subscription trial to The Economist, a popular business magazine. A complete foot-in-the-door marketing technique.

What would you have done?

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(Image from mUmbrella Asia.)

It’s not the first time The Economist has pulled off a stunt like this. The campaign in Singapore is merely a continuation of its campaign efforts in the UK, Netherlands, and Northern Island in bid to increase magazine subscriptions. In exchange for a free cup of Kopi Luwak (which can range from $60 to $80 a cup), the passers-by are offered a month-long subscription for only $5. It seems that such a tactic has proven to be successful in the UK, with the marketing company Sense clinching the best Direct and Promotional Strategy at The Drum Marketing Awards 2015, and The Economist getting over 4000 subscriptions as a direct result of the campaign.

Read about it here.

The Economist has also publicly made known their awareness of captive civet coffee and its cruelties, and has in turn made an assurance that the coffee which they were giving out is wild-sourced. The footnote in marketing agency Sense’s article reveals: We are aware that there are unscrupulous producers of kopi luwak coffee. The Economist has received assurances from its suppliers of kopi luwak used in our promotional campaigns is 100% ethically produced. Yet, we hear that all the time from Kopi Luwak producers, regardless if they are from wild or captive civets.

So here’s the dilemma: is it ever okay to drink Kopi Luwak?

On one hand, we know that Kopi Luwak is part of Indonesia’s culture. They’ve been harvesting the beans for centuries. There are farmers who do it the traditional, ethical way – that is, to forage for the beans on their plantations in the early mornings and thereafter spend their afternoons cleaning, drying and roasting the beans.

On the other hand, there are also farmers who resort to scrupulous means in order to make a quick buck. Kopi Luwak is a lucrative industry – everyone wants to have a hand in it. This has resulted in more and more people going out into the wild and capturing civets of all kinds, even the threatened Binturong, in order to produce the beans. The civets live in horrific conditions. Most of them do not survive.

Thankfully, there are certifications from organizations such as UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance that help us in identifying ethically-produced Kopi Luwak. Simply put, if you ever come across Kopi Luwak that does not have these certifications, they are more likely than not to have come from captive civets.

But let’s go back to the point. Would you have taken a cup from The Economist should you have passed them? Let us know what you think.

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Getting the message across at the Festival of Biodiversity

By Claudia Ang

“It’s better to drink milo,” said one of the children I was speaking to suddenly. I looked at him, bemused and yet intrigued because he had a straight face on, while the other children giggled and their parents laughed in view of his innocence and curt honesty.

He meant every word he said.

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(Photos by: Claudia Ang, Festival of Biodiversity Singapore)

We were at the Festival of Biodiversity held at Vivo City earlier in June 2015. I was just speaking to the children about our native civets when we came to the topic of Kopi Luwak. The story of the civets’ captivity and exploitation as a result of the Kopi Luwak trade caused their faces to twist in grimace. Their eyebrows furrowed, in sadness and in anger, and perhaps also in the inability to comprehend how or why us humans could allow such unnecessary abuse to occur just in exchange for some coffee beans. In that instant I knew that through our brief encounter they already had within them an appreciation for the creatures, for their beauty and sheer existence.

That’s when he said it. “It’s better to drink milo.” I looked at him expectantly, urging him to continue explaining his point of view to the other children. “Milo is good and it gives us energy too. It’s also sweet and chocolatey, not like coffee. We shouldn’t use the civets in this way. No matter how good it tastes, it’s not right.”

I gave him a badge with a picture of the common palm civet, shook his hand, and said, “Now will you please do me and the civets a favour? Share this story to all your friends, your family, and everyone who doesn’t know about it yet. Help us help the civets, okay?” He nodded, thanked me for the badge, and went away with his parents.

I was brimming inside. Getting the message across to as many people as we can has always been the goal, but it’s conversations like these that always brighten up my day, when I’m offered another point of view or alternative that helps us look at the entire issue in a separate person’s shoes. Children see it that way – they see no need for the abuse or the exploitation or the coffee beans itself. There are so many other drinks and types of great coffee that do not require the sacrifice of lives in order to produce.

It brought me back to the event we had two weeks earlier at Pulau Ubin in celebration of Ubin Day. People were horrified to learn about the living conditions of Kopi Luwak civets, and yet were able to readily admit that they have tried the coffee before. There’s no difference, they say. It’s just a marketing tool to get more money.

I will never know what real Kopi Luwak tastes like, because I’m sure I will never try it. But the point is, why waste all that money on these “exquisite” produce when you can get real, good, alternative produce at a lower cost?