||The Class Politics of Via
Posted: 5/17/2010 1:13:19 PM
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Starbucks is making a new push to push its Via instant coffee. In today's New York Times, the company took out a full two-page advertisement in the front section of the paper. In all its promo efforts, the company is trying to pull off a two-part strategy.
First, it wants to rework our notions of what instant coffee is -- and how it tastes. On urbandictionary.com -- the very best site for everyday sociological observations -- Sanka, the most famous brand of instant coffee is defined by someone as "something that is weak, lacking in substance, phony, a poor facsimile." In that ad in the Times, Starbucks fights back on the taste front. It insists that Via is "delicious, 100 % natural Starbucks." (How can instant coffee be 100% natural, is that the point that it isn't natural?) The ad continues, "An instant cup of coffee that tastes just like our fresh brew."
That is the taste front, but consuming is rarely about taste, right? It is more often about status.
Sanka and most instant coffee gets read in contemporary America as "low brow." This is the drink of our parents, or even our grandparents -- people who didn't, and if they still drink it don't, have the discernment, sophistication of contemporary, well-traveled food and taste savvy Creative Class types. This is the kind of everyday, industrial product that the initial Starbucks/Whole Foods movement revolted against.
To dislodge instant Via from these low status roots, Starbucks is trying to associate its product with the successful. That ad in today's Times features a dialogue between two people on an airplane. Another ad features someone rushing through an airport with a roller-board bag and another in an luxury hotel without coffee. Without a lot of subtlety, these ads try to severe the connection between instant coffee and lower status.
But the boldest and most interesting and political attempt to do so came last year, just as the Tea Party was on the rise. Remember, in the press, the Tea Party quickly became associated with a certain shrillness and intolerance. Tolerance, however, is one of the cardinal traits of cosmopolitanism -- something of course that Starbucks wants to be associated with and that it offers it customers.
Check out the ad by clicking on this link.
The ad goes by the title, "Town Hall Meeting" (and really represents a reworking of this central part of the American democratic myth and but it is for another blog.)
Here's what the ad says:
Narrator: "People who yell (and are thus I would editorialize intolerant) at town hall meetings can't tell the difference."
Speaker one yells loudly, boorish, "I can't tell the difference." Speakers two blurts out the same line.
Then the scene changes and the narrator ask, "Can you (tell the difference.)"
Obviously if you can, you aren't a part of the town the intolerant and unsophisticated middle. Once again -- and see some earlier posts on this -- Starbucks isn't really selling coffee, it is selling a performance of class.
Interestingly enough as the above link makes clear, conservatives picked up right away on what Starbucks was doing and they called for a boycott of the company. "In a recent television ad," Mark Gillar of the Conservative Consumer Coalition said, "Starbucks mocked conservatives by suggested we're too stupid to appreciate the difference in their new coffee."
In the end, though, I'm not sure Starbucks can pull this off -- that it can, on its own, redefine the class symbolism of instant coffee.
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