NPR ran a story recently about a Shiru Cafe, where Brown University students receive free coffee in exchange for offering their personal information. To get the free coffee, students must fork over their names, phone numbers, email addresses, birthdays, college majors, and “professional interests.” The students will then receive information “from corporate sponsors who pay the cafe to reach its clientele through logos, apps, digital advertisements on screens in stores and on mobile devices, signs, surveys, and even baristas.”
Basically, Shiru Cafe runs as a giant recruitment tool for these corporate sponsors: Shiru Cafe is owned by Japanese company Enrission, and has similar shops in Japan and India, where corporate sponsors include Microsoft, Nissan, and Suzuki. But there’s something about the setup that just seems like a trap for Gen Z: If you wanted to go out and capture a bunch of college students, wouldn’t free coffee be the first thing you’d use to lure them in? Sure, they get something out of it—caffeine and exposure to possible future employers. And this generation’s lives (like many of ours) are pretty much all available online anyway. Brown junior Nina Wolff Landau tells NPR that she knows her information is probably already accessible via a Google search or on LinkedIn: “‘Maybe I should have been more apprehensive, but everyone has your information at this point anyway… To give out my name and email and what I study does not seem so risky to me.’”
It brings to mind all those “free food” promises that are only available if you add yet another app to your already overloaded phone. For example, Wendy’s was offering free cheeseburgers last month in association with National Cheeseburger Day: Once you downloaded the Wendy’s app, you could get a free Dave’s Single every day until the end of the month.
On one hand: Free cheeseburgers! On the other hand, what info does Wendy’s now have on you? Are you doomed to receive online coupons from now until the time that they’re just automatically inserted into our brain waves (guessing… probably?) While we’re all for free stuff, and recognize that in some instances that ship has already sailed, a cup of coffee or a free burger seems like a cheap price for our online identity. Maybe wearing a cow costume to get a Chick-Fil-A entrée isn’t such a bad deal after all.