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Nothing says 'party' like the red plastic cup

The red plastic cup is all about assumptions, and we can assume it likes to party and will totally miss its final tomorrow morning, but who cares? Mind your own business before it punches you in the face. • Is there another piece of modern American ephemera that says so much without saying anything? The red plastic cup is an unmarked accessory void of ambiguity. It needs no insignia, no label. It has party written all over it. • The red cup's reputation is affirmed on a post-Gasparilla walk down Bayshore Boulevard, before the city workers scrape the parade route clean. The land is covered with splayed red cups, like dead cardinals. Hundreds. Thousands, perhaps. • It's reaffirmed when you find one under the bed in your room at the Days Inn and wonder if you should change rooms, because who knows what went down in here. • We find Sen. Hillary Clinton, on a flight from Cleveland to Toledo, during a conference with reporters. • "Need a beer?" asks someone off camera. • "Got one," Clinton says, hoisting, yes, a red plastic cup. (The Daily Telegraph reports it contained the candidate's favorite, Blue Moon, with a slice of orange.) • And then comes Bill Hemmer on Fox News' America's Newsroom, picking the presser apart with the network's "body language expert" Tonya Reiman. • REIMAN: You know, the only thing that struck me as odd is, she's holding the beer with her left hand, and she's a righty. And if you think about how you would normally take a sip, it's a little bit awkward to drink with your non-dominant hand, unless you have a reason to be doing that, you know? • HEMMER: Well, what would that reason be, then?REIMAN: It could be anything. Maybe she's really just holding that cup to hold that cup, you know. • A subliminal nudge to the party set. A connotative link to frat houses and backyard barbecues, to tailgates and keg stands and pirates on parade. • I'm one of you, see. Lend me your vote.

Now we find this tantalizing bit of minutia, from Nielsen, the audience measurement company: Of American cities, Tampa ranks sixth in cold plastic cup sales.

Sixth, with 57.2-million plastic cups sold in 2007. Behind New York, L.A., Miami, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Ahead of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Washington.


We can drink to that.

Illinois-based Solo Cup Co. was first to introduce the red plastic cup, on Nov. 20, 1972, along with blue, yellow and peach, according to a public relations representative.

None say party like red. If the cup is blue or green, context is taken into account. Is this a picnic? Could be iced tea. A pot luck in the church basement? Kool-Aid.

Of the Solo colors, which have expanded to include seasonal colors (like pastels in the spring) and sports team colors, red is a clear favorite, she said.

Of course it is.

Consider the implications of red: danger, lust, sin, STOP signs, roses, high heels, ketchup, the Bloods, Republicans, revolution, bullfighters, Nathaniel Hawthorne, power ties, Stephen Crane, Valentine's Day, Severe Risk of Terrorist Attacks.

Red is the color of bloodshed, invaders, bandits.

"Exposure to red accelerates the heartbeat, alters arterial blood pressure and increases the respiratory rate," Joseph Sassoon writes in the journal Social Science Information. "The emotions associated with red are those that 'make the blood rush to your head' — desire, love, aggression, anger. . . . So red stimulates passion . . . It is an impulse to move actively, to obtain results, a push towards vitality and power, on an instinctive and sexual level as well as in social life."

In the same way red furniture demands attention, the red cup invites us to partake, and it has wedged itself firmly into American culture.

The red cup has inspired poetry:

As there is sun, my body will be shadow

Shadows collect in this red plastic cup

— Mathias Svalina

The cup prompted two guys in Boston to do something silly in the summer of '06.

"We were both sitting on the couch watching the Sox, drinking some beers in red Solo cups and noticed a trash can across the room," Willard Johnson writes in an e-mail. "We discovered an eerie similarity between the shape of our cups and the shape of the trash can. With a saw and some paint, the Red Cups were born." The "Boston Red Cups" took part in their second Boston Marathon last month, wearing trash cans painted as red cups.

The cup has so permeated society, it has teetered toward taboo. A parenting expert delivering a lecture titled Hot Topics for Teens: Cutting, Sex, Huffing, Tattoos, MySpace, Hookah Pipes, Eating Disorders, Steroids and Aggressive Relationships, included this warning to the parents of high schoolers in Loomis, Calif., according to the school district's Web site: "If you see a photo with a teen holding a red plastic cup on MySpace, that's a way to depict them drinking alcohol."

The horror!

Except when it's not.

Some high schoolers in Wausau, Wis., were suspended from extracurricular activities after a principal found photos on Facebook of the students holding red plastic cups.

Were they drinking? You know the answer.

In protest, their friends threw a kegger. Cars lined the streets. Kids did keg stands. And when police arrived, they waded into a sea of red plastic cups.

The cops gave Breathalyzer tests to the kids, 89 of them, one by one. All 89 blew 0.0. A video posted later on YouTube explains that the prank was conducted with root beer and intended to illustrate that Great American Cliche: It's what's inside that counts.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727)
893-8650 or

Nothing says 'party' like the red plastic cup 05/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 11, 2008 8:59pm]
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