On NPR's Marketplace this morning, there was an interview with Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz. He was explaining how the megacorporation was moving laterally into media and content production. What was missing, out of the gate of this interview, was the fact that Schultz pushed hard (way back when I worked for Starbucks myself) to create Joe Magazine, dedicated to coffee and talking point. And he seems to forget that he once pushed baristas to have uncomfortable conversations with customers about race. So Schultz doesn't have a great track record of "starting conversations," as he claims his new media outlet will do.
Nobody remembers Joe magazine. For good reason. It was glossy and relatively contentless. It was linked to the brand, even as the company insisted it was quasi-autonomous.
But what does it mean, that Starbucks is pushing (back) into content production? Schultz stresses that the new magazine will be largely digital (because Web whatever-point-whatever) and not linked to the brand in any explicit ways. It is to be full of "inspirational" stories of "ordinary Americans." (So it isn't any different from hosts of similar media making similar claims.) So why would Starbucks do it?
Schultz is taking a page out of the late-neoliberal playbook. As in the corporate dystopias Margaret Atwood writes about in her enviro-apocalypse trilogy, corporate players are realizing that, increasingly, they need to work to make the consumer feel good about buying products. This has always to some extent been true: advertisement has always been geared toward creating the simulacrum of need and desire, and this has almost always most effectively been done by playing to the emotions of the ad viewer. Think Mad Men's Kodak carousel speech, or the Christmas-season "Johnny's just returned from years living abroad and is making coffee in his parents' kitchen while 'Shhhhhh they're sleeping' until they hear the burble of the shitty automatic coffee maker making shitty coffee, and they're not actually troubled by the fact that neither of them set the automatic coffee maker, and so that burble should be an indication that their sanctified suburban home has been the site of a break-in" commercials. Because, sentimentality and nostalgia.
Nope: Schultz knows that there is a new class of consumers hopped up on their own emotions who are looking for ways to feel better about spending money they increasingly have less of. Inspiration is the order of the day! Schultz isn't even coy, doesn't need to be explicit in telling us why he's not branded his content. We know that we choose our false consciousness very deliberately: we're more willing to consume content that hasn't been explicitly branded, because the macro-economic trend to maximum brand awareness is no longer a concern of Starbucks, and also increasingly works counter to the kind of flattery consumers want: "Don't tell us that this is Starbucks. We know it's Starbucks. If others knew it's Starbucks, which they couldn't possibly because I am a more intelligent and aware consumer, then they would judge me. So it's better if we all pretend that this magazine isn't made of the blood of peasants, the corpses of songbirds transiting through cloud forests, and the grime left over from overroasted coffee beans."
Instead, we want to purchase the most expensive, least substantial coffee beverage and we want to feel good (not about consuming that Cotton Candy-Parmesan Toffee Blended Coffee Drink, which we have been acculturated to regret purchasing before we purchase it, but about consuming at all). And in order to keep a consumer class increasingly fetishized, courted, interpenetrated, mined, and abused on the hamster wheel of consumption in the face of impending ecological and economic crisis, Schultz knows that he has to keep us locked in. And maybe it'll work? Third time's a charm, yeah? Maybe this won't go the way of Joe magazine. Surely, the underemployed who use Starbucks as a homebase and office need distraction from their distracting lives; maybe in the course of agreeing to be data-mined in exchange for temporarily free wifi, these consumers will "leaf through" the online content on the webpage they'll be directed to every time they enter Starbucks. They probably will. They probably won't feel like they have much of a choice. But will they be inspired?