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How the Red Solo Cup Became a Political Football


Solo cups are usually the domain of college kids at keg parties, but they’ve been in the news lately thanks to a very different demographic: politicians. As TNR senior editor Alec MacGillis pointed out on Twitter yesterday, it’s been a few politically newsworthy days for the iconic red plastic cup:

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler—who has advocated against drunk driving and even won the 2002 MADD “Hero Award”—held a press conference last week to address pictures that surfaced showing him at a beach party amid teenagers holding red Solo cups. Gansler says he was checking in on his teenage son, while his critics say he should have shut the party down; either way, the accusations against him rest on the assumption that there was alcohol in the cups. “There could be Kool-Aid in the red cup,” he said, “but there’s probably beer in the red cups.”

The Solo cup also came up at Wednesday’s House committee hearing on the problems with the Obamacare rollout. Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, criticized the Affordable Care Act's minimum requirements by saying, “Some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup and not a crystal stem." If the cup’s status as the emblem of unpretentious American drinking was ever in doubt, that quote settled it.

The company isn’t exactly thanking these pols for the free advertising, though. In response to my many requests for comment, Margo Burrage, a spokeswoman for Solo’s parent company, Dart Container, emailed me: “Alice, our only comment is that Dart does not condone over-consumption or underage consumption of alcohol under any circumstances.”

Seriously, where's the alcohol?! 

Indeed, the company seems to shy away from the Solo cup’s image as a party product. Their ads tend to feature the cups in G-rated situations like picnics and healthy buffets. And in an effort to dispel the long-held belief that the ridges on the Solo cup correspond with shot measures, the company suggested the lines be used to measure mouthwash, cereal or chocolate syrup. They’re also apparently pushing their product as raw material for children’s Halloween costumes.

Not all recent news has been good news for the Solo cup. Princeton blamed a campus outbreak of meningitis on students’ cup-sharing habits, and in response the Student Health Advisory Board has undertaken the entirely illogical approach of issuing to students 5,000 red cups printed with the slogan, “Mine. Not Yours.” Maybe better to give out 5,000 sharpies? Students have an incentive to mark their cups: As Toby Keith sang in his 2011 ode to the red Solo cup, showing off your handwriting on the cup is a great way to impress the opposite sex: “I have to admit the ladies get smitten/Admiring how sharply my first name is written/On you with a sharpie.”

The Solo cup has undergone a few makeovers since it was introduced in the 1970s. It now comes in twelve colors, including un-festive ones like black, gray (“silver”) and brown, but the classic red remains the best seller. And the company might do best to just leave it alone: When the Solo cup replaced its traditional round base with a new squared one in 2009, Slate writer Seth Stevenson became concerned that the redesign would fundamentally alter the American college experience. “So ubiquitous were these plastic cups in my undergrad days, tweaking them in even the slightest fashion would have altered my entire visual landscape,” he wrote. “It'd be akin to a Manhattanite awaking one morning to find New York City’s yellow cabs had all been painted fuchsia.”

I made it through college with nary a Solo cup in sight—but that’s because I went to college in England, where they’re a novelty item. (Flip Cup and Beer Pong are also foreign concepts.) The legend of the Solo cup has even made it across the Atlantic, though: People used to ask me if Americans really drank out of big red plastic cups, “like in the movies.” Indeed, their legend is so great, the cup, made popular by its cheapness and convenience, isn’t even considered disposable in the U.K.: It's more of a collector’s item.