We are approaching the beginning of the holiday season. I won’t get into the usual clichés: none of the “it’s that time of year again” stuff you’ve heard. I won’t speak of sweater weather or complain about leggings, or the crisp autumnal morns that make you feel like one of the non-poets in “The Dead Poets Society.” No, I’m going to bypass all that because I respect you, reader, and what’s more, I’m going to commiserate with you – not to bemoan the “basic b*tches” out in droves as they grasp for the pumpkin spice latte, but to lament that we should live in such times as these, that a product can go beyond advertising and stand for the sense of community that we all search for, and all too easily find in a brand name.
From the summer to the fall, in lieu of the agricultural rhythms that once gave life its tempo, we are ushered along from frappucinos (thin, watery milkshakes with a splash of instant coffee) to PSL’s (steamed milk, espresso and aerosolized harvest-scented bathroom freshener). Far be it from me to yearn for a time when industrial farming wouldn’t free me to pursue menial labor of another stripe, but can’t we agree something has been lost when our sense of the ebb and flow of the year is determined by slick ads?
And pumpkin spice is an industry unto itself. In 2015, sales of pumpkin spice-flavored products amounted to $360 million; if you count non-food products, over half a billion. That in itself isn’t the problem. I don’t take issue with the goodies, but what they imply. Because if the pumpkin spice is an industry, so is writing about pumpkin spice.
A fine example comes from a typically shameless Forbes piece, “How Starbucks Turned Pumpkin Spice into A Marketing Bonanza,” which tells nothing about how Starbucks actually pulled it off. They might as well have been telling the story of how Howard Schultz was born on Mt. Paektu: “So kick back, enjoy your PSL, and credit a coffee company for making pumpkin spice the hottest thing in fall flavors,” the hack preens. This is not news. This is not opinion. It’s barely-veiled advertising.
Some articles have the appearance of reporting facts, but are meant to impress something upon you. The “bandwagon effect:” if you hear that lots of people are getting lattes, you’ll want one too. The opinion could even be gently negative: it doesn’t matter as long as you are exposed to the idea. The most powerful TV commercial isn’t the one you’re watching, but the one playing softly in the periphery. Likewise, the best advertisement is one that sounds like a bemused enthusiasm, or even a scoff.
Every unboxing and review on Youtube of a smartphone, every Instagram photo of your Chipotle, every image of you surrounded by the merchandise of the movie you love – it is all free and potent advertising. We feel a sense of togetherness when we enjoy the same thing, we have cameras to show ourselves enjoying the thing, and the proprietors have the means to mass-produce the thing for everyone. Marketing largely depends on constructing a “narrative” around a product, thereby imbuing it with personal meaning. When a thing has a story, it is possible for you to embrace it as your own story.
According to NPD, a marketing research firm, consumers spend more money on other things when buying a seasonal product. Thus it is in the interest of marketing strategists to devise new ways of imparting seasonal flair to any time: back-to-school to PSL to Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Years to the Super Bowl, etc. Whether it’s cheap decorations, novelty t-shirts or desserts, retailers need to frame shopping in terms of “events.”
To be clear, they insist on exploiting our deepest needs and reducing our humanity, but I’m not advocating revolt and renunciation of all seasonal treats and scented candles. Like moneychangers whose offense was as burning incense unto Baal, Starbucks will burn beans and sell lattes, and I’m in no position to cast stones. But, before you buy that latte, post that picture, wait in line for the new toy, at least ask yourself: do I want to contribute to the “narrative?”