Wednesday, November 21, 2007
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.