Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bottoms Up

I have a problem. OK, I have a lot of problems, but this particular problem has to do with the fact that eating and reading have become hideously interlinked in my brain to the point where I can't sit down at the table without reflexively grabbing for words. I read the paper. I read advertising circulars. I read the backs of cereal boxes. And yesterday, while snacking at my parents' house, I read a brochure entitled "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition."

(Can't you just see some marketing wonk leaning back in his chair, steepling his fingers, and explaining that "you" needs to be the first word of the title because "you" come first with Starbucks? Hmmm.) Anyway, "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition" (subtitle: Helpful Information About the Beverage Options We Offer) is basically a list of the caloric content of every drink from a tall brewed coffee to a venti mocha Frappuccino. The brochure also offers hepful tips. Watching carbohydrates? Try tea. Watching fat? Try a nonfat cappucino.

And then there's this little gem:

Here's another good way to trim down a drink: we customize our beverages to order, so if whipped cream is a standard part of your favorite beverage, you can ask us to "hold the whip."

My first thought was: Aha! Finally Starbucks is admitting to the vaguely S & M nature of the relationship it cultivates with its customers. (You want your addictive substance? Pay up! Pay up now!) But actually I think the quotation marks give it away: "hold the whip" is not so much a submissive's plea as a passphrase, a linguistic marker of your insider status.

Further perusal of "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition" suggests that Starbucks has, very purposefuly, created an entire alternative dialect of coffee drinking. There's tall, grande, and venti. Solo and doppio. Frappucino, caramel macchiato, vanilla creme, java chip, barrista. If you don't know the lingo, your first venture into Starbucks could seem like a stroll across some border you didn't even know existed.

This is scary. Why? Because language isn't some isolated, free-floating human capability. It's inextricably bound up with constructs of culture, community, and place. Language marks you as part of a group or as an outsider; as a member of the elite or a member of the working class. What Starbucks has, with great calculation, fabricated is not only a range of caffeinated beverages, but an entire culture. Starbucks is selling community.

Do you want your community to be run for profit? Because I don't. Hand me that whip.


Laura said...

Okay, a) that is totally weird because I read that same brochure yesterday. Granted I was on line at Starbucks (it was the only place open on Thanksgiving to get coffee! Stop judging me!)

And b) I used to work at Starbucks, and I hate to say this, but it really is easier when people use the right lingo. When someone says "Can I have latte with caffeine, but not TOO much caffeine, and also , like, low fat and um, make it a small," I then had to translate that into "Nonfat half calf tall latte" for the barista, which I didn't have freakin time for, you with me? So, anathema though it might be, I urge your Starbucks-drinking readers to embrace the lingo and use it.

Anne said...

You are obviously my brochure soulmate! We should have a club.

Andrew said...

I knew there was a reason I didn't like Starbucks. Besides the fact that I don't like coffee.