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McDonald's, Starbucks, NBC Go Totalitarian in Sochi


Is this the Kremlin's influence on American brands, or just Olympic business as usual?

Since the opening ceremony of XXII Olympic Winter Games two weeks ago in Sochi, attendees have been swept up in not so much Olympic fever, but an Olympic fever dream. This time-honored pageant of spirited competition must feel a lot more like a celebration of heavy-handed control when your hotel shower is under video surveillance, your texts and emails are being monitored and even blocked, and event security comes in the form of snipers nests camouflaged in bushes.

These high Olympic ideals perhaps took their most impassioned form with the arrests of citizens attempting to sing the Russian national anthem in Moscow's Red Square while holding rainbow flags, and the whipping, pepper-spraying, and detainment of a punk-rock protest group trying to perform on the street.

Now it seems the Kremlin's totalitarianism is spilling over into coffee. What's weirder, the coffee belongs to an American brand.

Longtime Olympics sponsor McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) has taken a when-in-Russia tack with respect to what concessions can be seen and served at the event. Although the closest Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) store to Sochi is over 350 miles away, a top-secret branch was opened by Comcast-owned (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBC for the Games in the network's section of the international broadcast center with access strictly limited to its employees.

When McDonald's caught whiff of this highly classified coffee operation -- outed by the Wall Street Journal -- the food-service giant threw down the hammer and sickle and a new dictate was issued: McCafe brew or McTrouble!

"After the Journal article was published, NBC coffee enthusiasts showed up at their much-loved private Starbucks and found a new warning sign. 'Please enjoy your Starbucks within NBC space only,' the announcement said in capital letters. 'Do not leave NBC space with your Starbucks cup.'"

The crackdown also put the kibosh on the NBC smugglers who had been running the contraband in cardboard-cup carriers over the network compound border to the non-elite at the Games who needed their own Frappuccino fixes.

The Starbucks location has since beefed up its security defenses both inside and outside the premises. Its 15 baristas were re-trained to serve patrons who agreed to drink the beverage on-site or within the designated NBC media center. A customer deigning to leave, drink in hand, was stopped at the door. "No gifts. No gifts," the guard said. "Pour it out or go back and drink it." Another customer, who relayed a similar story, specifically requested to remain anonymous "for fear of retribution."

Some freedom of movement was granted to NBC's Starbucks drinkers on Wednesday when the network managed to stock the store with thousands of unbranded coffee cups in a generic and decidedly un-Starbucks-like brown and orange. Any employee who wants to enjoy their joe on-the-go may do so, just as long as the contents are safely shrouded inside a receptacle that looks like it came from an interstate truck stop.

Of course, with 2,500 NBC employees now walking the Olympic grounds with drab coffee cups that colleagues and spectators alike know are filled with Starbucks, the chain may start to find itself with a new logo association and some branding confusion on its hands.

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