1984 Americano

Starbucks is Big Brother. Orwell saw it coming.

(Clearly, I’ve never been a fan of the Starbucks experience.)

Much has been made of Starbucks’ success in terms of marketing, but a random thought of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four while making coffee made me realize that the parallels fit eerily well.

Those times I find myself in a Starbucks line (my need for caffeine sometimes supersedes my fear of Big Brother… ah, fresh roasted hypocrisy) the confusion always begins here:

“I’ll have a large americano.”

“Venti americano?”

“Is that the biggest?”

Much like O’Brien proves to Winston that the state can indeed make two-plus-two equal five, Starbucks has convinced many consumers that the proper way to order coffee is with their lingo, which is creepily brilliant. You use the language, and then you go to the only place where that language is understood. I’d actually be interested in learning how many other coffee-shops accept the terminology when they hear it, or if they demand a translation.

I’ve learned that ‘tall’ (one of their smallest sizes) is named based on actually having been bigger than their original size, near the beginning of Starbucks. The pendulum has swung in the other direction, leaving it nearly the smallest option, yet it retains the name, which the literalist in me has a very hard time with.

I’ve had numerous friends who have worked or do work for Starbucks, and it seems to treat their employees very well, with free coffee, and great training. Not unlike WestJet, they foster a deep sense of interaction with their employees, not to mention with their customers.

Researching this article has shown me that as a company, they’re not so bad, though not without blemishes. The real sin that I see is here that of monoculture. The same food, music, and clothes everywhere you go. The safety that you can get cloned coffee no matter where you are should be replaced by the curiosity of trying something new, and pleasantly being surprised. I’ve become a big fan of Kawa coffee because of the great tasting roasts they choose, but also because I treasure the individual quality of every visit.

The threat of monoculture is a world where we don’t see the world, because every facet of it is stuck on repeat with same street-corner two blocks ago. Or two cities ago. Or two ‘talls’ ago.

Starbucks as an organization can hardly be blamed for their marketing acumen, and they are not so blatantly oppressive as Big Brother. Their ability to manipulate language and actually alter behavior based on that does bear a resemblance though. Besides, when you’re bringing in $10.71 billion  with a coffeehouse experience, why go to the bother of actually being oppressive. It’s a lot more work…

The dominance of the Starbucks brand has less to do with quality than salesmanship and viral branding. The coffee itself is often over-roasted and bitter, though I suppose it’s true that it’s consistently over-roasted. Coffee drinkers are in the Starbucks habit (or follow their peers), and so entrepreneurs get on board rather than taking a risk with an individual creation. We’re all drinking Blend 101, and two plus two equals Venti…


One thought on “1984 Americano

  1. Strange thing that just today, when ordering a coffee from my local go to coffee shop, I was thinking back on if I was ‘corrected’ the last time I had gone to a Starbucks for coffee. I can’t remember, but it got me thinking of a few things:

    First of all, this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wic5Mf06SJ0

    Secondly, that I’m too polite of a person to do anything but be corrected when I order a “Large, dark roast. Please.” at any Starbucks.

    And, third, this trend of changing the wording of menus has been a fairly common occurrence all my life. I remember a time when McDonalds was the only fast food restaurant that offered a size above ‘large’ and it was dubbed ‘Supersize’ (hence the famous documentary’s title). And later on all the other fast food burger chains started allowing larger sizes with their own names—Wendys wants us to ‘Biggie’ size, and A&W asks if we wish to ‘Bear’ size our meals.

    But that didn’t seem to phase anyone which I believe is mainly due to the, I’m going to have to say, pretentiousness that surrounds coffee culture. I can go into any burger joint and ask that they ‘Supersize’ my meal, and they’ll just do it no matter what they’re trying to call it. But, when you go into a local coffee shop and ask for a ‘Venti’, you get corrected—and, I assume, vice versa.

    One thing that does boggle my mind though, is how ingrained the ‘Double-Double’ Tim Horton’s lingo has permeated throughout Canadian coffee culture. As a drinker of black coffee I have to specify, almost no matter where I go for coffee, that I don’t want cream or sugar in my order. Otherwise the barrista will either just plop it in, or serve me three-quarters of a cup, leaving room for that awful stuff.

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