Starbucks Coffee Cup

Department of Media Studies

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Name (in capitals): RACHEL RAFTER

Student Number: 15367736

Module Code & Title: MD353 Socialisation of Technology

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An analysis of the Starbucks coffee cup and how it is representative of a consumer culture that is inherently exploitative, thus, creating passive consumers, by drawing on the critical theory of the Frankfurt School

In line with the Frankfurt School and their critical theory, I intend to examine how consumer culture is affecting twenty – first century society. To do so I will briefly mention New Marxist approaches whilst elaborating on the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. In the latter half of this essay I will present a case study analysing how Starbucks has developed as an up-market, coffee chain. I will argue that the Starbucks coffee cup has had a determining role on our society. I will also propose that these Starbucks coffee cups, in line with the Frankfurt School’s theories, have created passive citizens out of consumers.

For several decades, literature on consumers and their consumption habits have reigned across various disciplines. The various research approaches to consumer behaviour have led to an enhanced understanding about consumer society; how consumers understand their goods, the role of consumption, the social disparities involved in consumer behaviour and the very nature of retailing (Schor, 2007: 16). Prior to the emergence of this new wave of studying consumer culture, there were few consumer critics such as Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse from the Frankfurt School. However, new studies raised objections to the traditional consumer studies. The objections to these critical approaches were that they failed to give credit to consumers and they portrayed them as passive rather than actively engaging with society (Schor, 2007: 17). Similarly, these scholars portrayed the marketplace from too unitary a position and that they were too elitist in their approach (Schor, 2007: 17).

The Frankfurt School has been an influential movement in consumer reflection. Adorno and Horkheimer (1944/ 1972: 121) outline how consumers are stuck in a “circle of manipulation and retroactive need”. The Frankfurt School determines that capitalist production produces capitalist culture and a passive population of consumers in which cultural consumption is used to replicate an economic system (Schor, 2007: 22). Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is accepted by the Frankfurt School. Commodity Fetishism suggests that individuals in capitalist societies do not desire products based off their intrinsic qualities but rather they desire the product as they feel it holds a social value (Kellner, 1983: 74). Marx attached two uses to products: the use value and the exchange value (De Leon, 1910:1). The real value attached to a commodity to satisfy ones’ need is referred to as the use value by Marx (De Leon, 1910: 1). A commodities exchange value is determined by the marketplace through the interaction of supply and demand (De Leon, 1910: 1). In capitalist societies, exchange value dominates use value. Kellner (1983: 67) suggests that Marx failed to see the extent that commodities and consumption of commodities would integrate individuals into the capitalist social order. Instead, Marx analysed how capitalism replicated the world and analysed the commodity-form and commodity-fetishism only (Kellner, 1983: 67).

Brands permeate every aspect of our lives. Product placement has found its way into films, videos and other media channels to guarantee that brands are fixed eternally in our minds (Arvidisson, 2005: 236).We live in this all-encompassing brand space where our abilities to feel and to act can constantly coincide with giving attention to a brand (Arvidisson, 2005: 236). Consumers are what give a brand meaning (Arvidisson, 2005: 236). Holt (2002: 94) stated that the market today thrives on consumers who engage unknowingly in unconventional producer - consumer activities. Brands themselves figure as immaterial capital. Arvidisson (2005: 239) describes this as brand equity. This brand equity outlines how brands are not based on the objects themselves. Rather, brands are based on their subjective meaning and social function (Arvidisson, 2005: 239). This brand equity relies solely on using experiences, emotions and lifestyle as elements to represent the monetary value these brands can have to consumers (Keller, 2001: 18). Arvidisson (2005: 242) outlines how consumers are actively involved in creating the value of consumer goods. The virtual nature surrounding brands suggests that brands can only be maintained if consumers take the brands seriously. Keller (2001) notes,

“the power of a brand is what resides in the minds of customers”

(Kellner, 2001: 14)

Determinism over simplifies reality. It assumes that we are rational beings. However, we are not always predictable and exterior influences affect our decisions (Walle, 2000: 2). The Frankfurt School aims to surpass the limitations of determinism (Walle, 2000: 3). Mass media and popular culture dominate twenty – first century society. Thus, capitalism produces "false needs" through this mass media and popular culture (Noonan, 2005: 2). The satisfaction given to individuals upon pursuing these false needs involuntarily makes individuals believe that they are content (Noonan, 2005: 10). Marcuse elaborates on this theory throughout his work. Marcuse supposes that individuals ‘real’ needs are to be sought independently by thinking for themselves (Kellner, 1983). On the contrary, capitalism generates false needs employed by consumerism, thus, true needs remain unfulfilled (Noonan, 2005: 2). The illusion that one is free in capitalist societies is just that, an illusion.

The Actor Network Theory insists that social, political, economic and technological all influence one another (Crawford, 2005). Whereas the Frankfurt school places the emphasis of power on society alone, Marcuse claimed that the rising standards of living encouraged by the social order of consumerism has created rising expectations which capitalism cannot accomplish. Marcuse suggests that this failure will form pressure and conflicts between individuals which may detonate society (Kellner, 1983: 71). Capitalism portrays the ‘good’ life and gives the impression that this ‘good’ life is within the reach of everyone. The mass media project this standard of life as the norm. However, many people cannot reach this lifestyle which leads them to become frustrated and discontent (Kellner, 1983: 71).

I will now present a case study to further analyse the relationship between society and consumers regarding the Frankfurt school’s critical theory. I will discuss Starbucks and how the Starbucks coffee chain is representative of a consumer culture that leads consumers into believing they are active consumers rather than passive. I will focus this analysis on the Starbucks coffee cup as this is itself a form of mediated technology as it spreads the companies brand and logo. Starbucks is a prime example of the Frankfurt School and their theory of capitalism leading to passive consumers. Similarly, Starbucks still echoes the false needs outlined by Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man.

To distinguish between active and passive consumers one must understand the decision – making process involved in both categories. Firstly, an active consumer is one who actively hunts for information to make a conscious decision (Roos and Anders Gustafsson, 2011: 451). On the contrary, a consumer who is passive by nature does not search for information before coming to a decision. Therefore, they cannot offer a conscious explanation as to why they choose to do something (Roos and Gustafsson, 2011: 451).

Marcuse (1964: 9) believed that people recognise themselves in their commodities. Starbucks has often been portrayed as an extension of our own homes. This marketing approach by Starbucks happened in the mid – 1990’s (Gaudio, 2003: 677). Prior to the 1990’s, Starbucks coffee stores were imitations of Italian coffee bars where customers would drink their coffee standing and leave brusquely upon finishing their coffee (Gaudio, 2003: 677). The revolution of Starbucks from a quick stop coffee shop into a gourmet coffee house essentially created the coffee shop market we know nowadays (Thompson and Arsel, 2004: 631). Starbucks is inevitably a high demand consumer good as a result (Thompson and Arsel, 2004: 631). In 1990 in America there were only 300 coffee houses. In comparison, at present there are approximately 14,000, with Starbucks comprising of 30% (Thompson and Arsel, 2004: 631). Starbucks has developed into a cosmopolitan brand. However, the prospect of a brand only arises through the accumulation of customer experiences, whom give the brand itself meaning (Bookman, 2013: 61).

In the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas, a member of the Frankfurt School (1989:35) claimed that during the 18th century a sphere arose amid the state and the private sphere known as the public sphere. Habermas’ public sphere would primarily take place in coffee houses (Habermas, 1989: 35) and acted as a space for communication and interaction to occur between individuals who may or may not have shared similar standpoints on issues such as trade and politics (Habermas, 1989: 37). The earliest coffeehouse can be traced back to London in the mid- seventeenth century. This social space was filled with both wealthy and middle-class individuals, where social interaction occurred without regard for social status (Gaudio, 2003: 670). Starbucks, the 21st century coffee house, shares this major role of being a space for citizens. However, these 21st century coffee houses are surrounded by individuals who prefer not to talk each other. Instead they prefer to sit alone and have a cup of coffee without being disturbed.

Koehn (2001: 173) suggests that it is the store design, layout, lighting and furnishings that strengthens Starbucks obligation to produce fine coffee products. A consumer’s experience lies not only with the product they consume but with the interactions they encounter in the store, the music in the background and the aromas they sense (Koehn: 2001: 173). On a visual scale, Starbucks logos are positioned on the cups and on the windows of the stores to give the brand a ubiquitous presence (Biehl- Missal and Saran, 2012: 174). The placement of these logos are not just symbols of a corporate business, rather, they impact on people via their materiality and presence (Biehl – Missal and Saran, 2012: 174).

Although ‘going out’ to drink, eat, and talk is a common social practice, paying money to have a private conversation in a public space often seems irrational. For example, let us explore Will Hunting’s opinion, main character in Good Will Hunting. Skylar, asks Will to meet for a coffee. To which Will replies

“Great. Or maybe we could just go somewhere and eat a bunch of caramels. When you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee”

(Damon and Affleck, 1997: 22)

Taking a step back to analyse Will Hunting’s point leads one to ponder. Going for a coffee has become a social norm in western society. While Starbucks is just one example of a coffee shop, it’s elitist approach to coffee is somewhat different to picking up a coffee in your local McDonalds. Starbucks is a brand. Like all brands, showing it off lets others know your identity and often, your social standing.Kellner suggested that the incapability of the vast majority of individuals to attain the standard of living and life-style often seen as the norm in the mass media creates frustration and dissatisfaction (1983: 71). By typing in “Starbucks” to the Instagram search bar and selecting tags, 31.2 million* images occur. These images are posted from a range of individual users across the world. This figure echoes Kellner’s concern. If you do not project to the world your ability to purchase your Starbucks coffee by posting an image of your Starbucks cup, you are on the outset. Whilst it requires the effort of the individual to go onto their social media to post this, they do this without thinking. This is the new norm associated with buying a Starbucks coffee.

[*Figure taken on 25th April 2018]

The Frankfurt School determines that capitalist production produces capitalist culture and a passive citizenry (Schor, 2007: 22). However, Starbucks have now made their consumers think they are active in their consumer processes. Consumers of Starbucks actively engage with the baristas in their attempt to spell your name right on your coffee cup. Their failed attempt at spelling a consumer’s name leads them to post it onto social media, satirising the baristas misspelling. Similarly, coffee art in the form of feathers and love hearts are common place on social media timelines. Thus, leading to more advertising and marketing for Starbucks. Arvidisson (2005: 236) exclaimed that consumers are what give a brand meaning. Thus, this form of marketing is immensely effective for Starbucks as it does not cost them anything. Rather, the consumers are passively spreading the Starbucks brand for them.

Marcuse believes that Capitalist culture creates false needs. These false needs are inherently echoed in the very nature of Starbucks. One does not need to go to a coffee shop every time they want to meet a friend. One does not need to drink coffee every day. One does not need to post pictures to social media of their Starbucks coffee. But this is the world we live in. Adorno and Horkheimer (1944/ 1972: 121) describe consumers as being stuck in a “circle of manipulation and retroactive need”. The very nature of Starbucks is to divulge themselves into your false needs. Advertising promotes desires. By looking at someone else’s coffee on social media, it leads you into fundamentally believing that you too, would like a coffee. Keller defined this as using brand equity which relies solely on using experiences, emotions and lifestyle as elements to represent the monetary value these products can have to consumers (Keller, 2001: 18). To summarise, they feed off the advertising cliché, if you drink Starbucks coffee, you will be happy. While we think we are autonomous in our decision to purchase a Starbucks coffee, mass culture and advertising are the true reasoning behind these choices.

The CEO of Starbucks, Orin Smith stated

“We changed the way people live their lives, what they do when they get up in the morning, how they reward themselves, and where they meet”

(Thompson and Arsel, 2004: 631)

This is apparent on a global scale. Starbucks has impacted our society and changed the way in which we interact with the world. Not only has Starbucks impacted the way we socialise, but it also governs our online social media presence too. Marx’s commodity fetishism outlines how individuals in a capitalist society do not crave products for their intrinsic qualities but desire the product due to the social status attached to it (Kellner, 1983: 74). To summarise, the consumer culture associated with Starbucks and their coffee cups is inherently exploitative. It makes passive consumers out of people. In an era dominate by social status, technology harvests mass culture that leads individuals into conforming to conventional thoughts and behaviour. Thus, technology is aiding social control and domination.


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