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Always fascinated by the paradox presented in Hesse's Magister Ludi between the worlds of the spirt and of the flesh, I left academia after completing the coursework for a Ph.D. in English Literature for a career in Information Technology consulting, foresaking Shakespeare, Byron, and Fitzgerald for Turing, Iverson, and Date. Soon thereafter, I, like Tom and Laura's father, the telephone lineman, fell in love with long distance. In the years that followed, I plied my craft in places strange and far, including Riyadh, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sarajevo, and (most pleasantly) Nice. Returning to my native America after many years abroad, I have found it dramatically changed, not necessarily for the better. Now I practice my trade more sedately, traveling to such exotic places as St. Louis, Atlanta, and Hartford. But, as Mr. Buffett reminds us, "there's still so much to be done." So hearkening back to Tom's absent father... if the phone doesn't ring, it's me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why Does “Middle America” Hate Starbucks?

Don’t want to read no stinkin’ books. Let’s go to McDonalds and then go watch some football!
McDonalds is competing with Starbucks in the upscale coffee market. Yes, you can now get a medium (not a grande, mind you) latte from the great purveyor of cheap, greasy hamburgers and composite chicken nuggets. Their advertisements generally emphasize their cheapness in regards to Starbucks, rather than their quality…

And this, of course, is a key reason that Middle America prefers the clown. However, McDonalds’ commercials illustrate other, less flattering reasons as well. Of particular note is a commercial featuring two twenty-ish young men, both with glasses and vaguely European dress, sitting in a quiet shop, drinking coffee and, of all things, reading! One tells the other that McDonalds is now serving lattes to which the second replies, “That’s great!!” Now he can shave his goatee, take off his glasses (he wears them simply to look more intellectual), stop reading books, and (hallelujah) watch football. The second, while removing his black turtleneck, reveals that he, too, “likes to sit and watch football.”

It’s interesting that McDonalds did not chose to portray either yuppies or hippies as its version of the type of person likely to frequent Starbucks, but rather “beats,” dressed, of course, in black. Most of McDonalds’ audience wouldn’t know Kerouac from Ginsberg and the only beat they might possibly recognize would be Maynard G Krebs. Evidently, however, the image of the intellectual beat endures and is associated with something vaguely anti-American.

This, of course, is the complementary appeal to cheapness over quality, an appeal to Sarah Palin’s “real Americans,” who would never want dress or look differently than the crowd and who certainly would never prefer reading a book to watching football. Moreover, “real Americans” view any desire to sip coffee on reasonable chairs in a quiet environment with, perhaps a bit of classical music, as opposed to sitting on plastic chairs listening to the screams of their and others darting children, as inherently elitist -- you know, those things that Europeans and urbanites, those “faux Americans,” like.

Sadly, McDonalds will certainly succeed in capturing a large share of Starbucks’ market share. Those real Americans who, each Sunday (prior to the game, of course), hop into their foreign-made SUVs that get 20 miles per Middle Eastern gallon and flock to Wal-Mart to buy massive amounts of cheap, made-in-China goods, and who write letters to their Representatives and to the twin media deities, Hannity and O’Reilly, lamenting the death of American manufacturing, will always prefer cheapness to quality.

One final reason for this emerges just at the end of the McDonalds’ commercial when the second young man says that he even almost bought a beret. That’s it! Not only does the coffee cost more at Starbucks, you can’t even get Freedom Fries with it. Bring in the clowns!


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