Starbucks Coffee, at least in its US branches, is celebrating nothing in particular by inviting consumers and customers in the United States to enjoy a free pastry with the purchase of a beverage. Apparently, Starbucks just got rid of artificial flavors, dyes, trans fats, and high-fructose corn syrup in its pastry selections, although you can never be too sure with the Venti mocha frappucino. As with everything “free,” the fine print in the invitation can make you think twice about getting a free bagel.
Thorstein Veblen – the Viking rock god of economics – once wrote that conspicuous consumption happens because people accumulate enough wealth to be economically capable of showing off. Starbucks is to Veblen’s conspicuous consumption as Disneyland was to Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum: no other place in the world turns out a greater profit from non-essential goods than the McDonald’s of all coffee. The coffee does not have to be good. It just has to be expensive and symbolic. It has to represent the difference between instant coffee and one made in funky machines.
I’m not one for coffee, but the thing with Veblen goods is that as non-essential as they are, and even if they don’t have a useful value to human existence, they’re ubiquitous. There are at least under a dozen Starbucks outlet in the Ortigas area alone, and even more perhaps at Makati. What is sold is a name, an experience, and an ambience. The rest of the day, you’re pretty much drinking a frothy, creamy version of a 3-in-1. You don’t have to get it, though: it’s still Starbucks. At least here, these non-essential goods also include college kids doing the top-view emo pose with cellphone cameras.
To me, though, there’s no coffee better than Pokka. They have yet to import Pokka vending machines from Japan that could hand me all that umami goodness in a can, so for now, it’s a cold Coke. Or two.