The Expectation of Purchasing Refined Tastes

“The worst thing that you can be is a consumer,” an elitist writer once mused in a speech. “And I say the word consumer in the most condescending manner possible.” 

I’m quite sure that that sentence received some applause from the esoteric and refined consumers in the audience that would go onto buy this author’s esoteric and refined products. I’m quite sure that a number of people in that audience considered the author’s stance brave and bold. I’m sure that no one in the audience believed he was talking about them, and I’m sure that this author felt secure in his belief that no one in his audience would stand up and say, “Hey, I’m a consumer. How dare you crack on my people?” I’m quite sure that just about everyone in that audience pictured that consumer they knew –that had to purchase the latest and greatest electronics products– and they defined themselves against that exaggerated contrast. I’m quite sure that no one in that audience was objective enough to understand that the totality of the author’s musing included everyone but him.

“What is the difference between consumers that deign to purchase consumable products sold at McDonald’s and those sold at the local, mom and pop coffee store?” is a question that I would love to ask this esteemed author. The answer would be that one is a consumer, and one happens to be a consumer. The import being that we are to pronounce the former in the most condescending manner possible. This distinction became clear to me when I informed some friends of mine that blind taste tests showed that McDonald’s coffee tested as high as the coffee found in some of the coffee shops the more erudite attend.

“Pshaw!” these friends –that read the aforementioned author– responded. They did not use the word Pshaw. They opted for more refined and somewhat polite (see condescending) words, but the import of their response was that they were more cultured than those involved in the blind taste tests. They are more posh and eclectic. They eat sushi and Thai, and they broaden their minds by listening to exotic podcasts and watching obscure documentaries.

I confessed that I couldn’t taste the difference between beans, and that most of the products I consume would be more at home on a 1950’s table, before the research on food taught us what we now know about it. I told them that I watch broadcast television, and that I enjoy reading mainstream books, some of the times, and I may as well have admitted that I am something of a Neanderthal.

I am not much of a coffee drinker. These people are. They’re aficionados. They enjoy exotic coffee beans that are exclusive to urban coffee shops I’ve never attended. They also have exotic coffee makers in their homes that require minimal mixing times, gentle air pressure pushes, and low brewing times for professional cuppers and true coffee aficionados. I am not welcome in their world.

Their world involves community venues (see coffee shops in the Neanderthal’s lexicon) with artistic geniuses throwing brilliant ideas at one another under exotic Matisse paintings, all while learning to love various styles of coffee beans that are beyond me. Some of the community venue customers have goatees, others have cornrows and dreadlocks, and they are all very Euro. They also feel a little sorry for bourgeoisie, like me, that know little outside the world of McDonald’s coffee PSHAW! They do not say “Pshaw!” as I mentioned, for elitists say Pshaw, and they abhor elitists.

They feel at ease when bracketed alongside fine wine drinkers. They eat Foie Gras, black pudding, organic foods, and even beluga caviar. They don’t eat caviar. Posh, eclectic types don’t eat caviar anymore. Caviar is as a product consumed by wealthy consumers, in the manner the shows Gilligan’s Island and Scooby Doo might depict the wealthy. Caviar doesn’t provide prestige in community venues. Foie Gras is the new caviar.

“But blind taste tests conducted by Consumer Reports and Canadian Business Magazine found that McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee tested better than the coffee sold at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s,” I told my friends. This didn’t shock them. They heard of similar tests done with similar products, but that never led them to question their beliefs. They were confident that their tastes were more refined than Americans’ tastes (Readers should read the latter word in the most condescending manner possible).

They answered my follow up, clarification with an, “Oh, no!” and there was almost a titter that leaked out in reaction to my lack of knowledge, and that titter may have made it out of the less refined. They said what they said in the most condescending manner possible. It was obvious to all of us that I knew nothing of coffee, and they appeared to be a little embarrassed for me, for attempting to step foot onto their home turf.

“We don’t like Starbucks,” they said, “And we’ve never heard of this Tim Horton’s (a Canadian franchise).” 

This missed the general point I was making, but it wouldn’t have mattered if these magazines did specific blind taste tests on their specific brand of coffee. They would still consider themselves specific, exceptions to the rule. They were/are posh and eclectic. I couldn’t know to whom I was talking when I was talking to them. No one could.

In his book, You are Not so Smart, author David McRaney cites such blind, taste tests being done with professional wine tasters sipping wine. The tests, he cites, incorporated cheap wines and expensive, exotic wines to see if professional sippers could tell the difference. The results were quite shocking, for it wasn’t just an inability to determine the difference, the brain scans of these professionals showed that they were not lying when they stated their preferences. The scans showed that their brains altered with excitement when they drank the expensive wines. One particular test had the controllers putting the same wine in two different bottles. They informed the professional wine sippers that the wine in bottle ‘A’ was an expensive, exotic wine, and bottle ‘B’ was a lesser, cheaper brand. The brain scans showed that the lighting up, of the subjects’ brains, was exclusive to product ‘A’. The conclusion that the controllers reached was that the professional sippers grew more excited by the expectation of sipping something more expensive.

The conclusion McRaney drew was that this elevated expectation is not limited to wine sippers, or even coffee drinkers. Elevated expectation leads us to prefer Pepsi to Coke; Budweiser over Miller; and Marlboro over Camel. Expectation brought on by marketing campaigns, and the resultant branding, causes us to believe that one product is superior to another. Packaging, environment, and presentation procures expectation. Expectation can be just as prevalent in desire as taste. There is so little difference between the these brands, McRaney writes, that blind taste tests prove that we often cannot taste the difference, but we’ve been branded by marketing. We’re Pepsi drinkers, imported beer drinkers, expensive wine drinkers, and Columbian coffee drinkers. This defines us in a manner we find pleasing, but we’re all products of marketing, packaging, and environment. Expectation might also lead us to believe that a product can redefine us.

“Have you tried the latest lager from Djibouti?” Gucci asks Dior. “You simply must try it. It exhibits an exceptional respect for the ancient art of brewing. It is a highly fermented lager with a light malt, corn, water, hops and a yeast that gives it a bright, golden color with dazzling reflections.” 

When Gucci concludes his exotic narrative, Dior must have it. Is Dior so excited to try it, because Gucci’s narrative has elevated his expectation? That may be the case, but he also wants that aura and the identity of a drinker of a lager from Djibouti. He wants that prestige coated on his epidermis for all that attend the next party he attends. The fact that those that have even heard of Djibouti could not spot it on a map makes its lager even more alluring. If Dior doesn’t know anything about Djibouti either, a pregnant silence between friends, at that next party, won’t hurt anyone.

These people wouldn’t be caught dead sipping coffee in a McDonald’s, as those consumers that prefer a community venue, offering exotic coffee beans with exotic flavors for the exotic mind, could define that as consumerism in “the most condescending manner possible”. If they entered a community venue that offered an exotic coffee bean, and that venue had paintings of cartoon clowns in them, my friends would consider the bean it produced inferior. If it had exotic Matisse paintings on its wall, and the customers all had goatees and dreadlocks, I’m quite sure that they would be sipping on that same bean with a satisfied smile.

As David McRaney says throughout his book, “You don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. You don’t know what you like and what you don’t like, or at the very least your preferences can be altered by suggestion, environment, presentation, and advertising.” These advertisements may not have sports heroes clinking glasses, or horses kicking field goals, but that’s not who they want to be anyway. And they scoff at those American consumers that are susceptible to such blatant marketing, as they pass by them in a McDonald’s, and enter into the community venue that offers an environment more suited to someone with esoteric and refined tastes. They do this without recognizing the stratified American marketplace that appeals to consumers and consumers.

If an individual attempts to open a McDonald’s in their city, the franchise advisor will inform them that all McDonald’s have to be ‘X’ number of miles from another McDonald’s, and this is based on the idea that the marketplace cannot sustain two McDonald’s that are too close. Most of those that are placed in charge of franchise locations would inform a potential franchisee that the optimal location would consist of no fast food restaurants within ‘X’ miles of the franchisee’s desired location, but with the ubiquitous nature of fast food restaurants, they concede that that’s becoming a logistic impossibility. If that franchisee wants to open a McDonald’s right next to a community venue, however, the franchise locator will inform them that that’s a lot more feasible, as they appeal to such different demographics. The point is that those that believe that they are not susceptible to the “crass marketing schemes” employed by the famous golden arch franchise may be right, but their marketing schemes are just more immediate than the ones Foie Gras eaters prefer. They prefer a more subtle marketing scheme that appeals to their quieter sensibilities, and an environment tailored to their personality, and a presentation that speaks volumes with no slogans required. They are different from consumers, but they are just another link in the chain of this huge, monolithic beast we all call capitalism.

There may be a difference between the taste of the exotic Kopi Luwak bean and the beans used in McDonald’s coffee, but most don’t know the difference in quality to a degree that they can tell in a blind taste test. All right, that may be an exaggeration. Perhaps the Kopi Luwak coffee berry that passes through the digestive system of the Peruvian Civet Palm Cat (and is picked out of that cat’s dung) is so refined that there is a discernible difference between that and McDonald’s, but on a more linear scale (say Starbuck’s) McDonald’s coffee proves comparable, and in some cases superior, in blind taste tests.

Even if I presented this information, in conjunction with the tests that suggested McDonald’s provided a superior cup of coffee, I’m sure that these friends would pshaw me. Whether or not they ever tried McDonald’s coffee, they would know that it provided an inferior product. Their pshaw would contain elements of a messenger within a message, for they would assume that it was Americans that were involved in those blind taste tests, and those Americans were likely truck drivers and church goers from Iowa. They would know that everyone they knew know better. They knew that I knew little about coffee, and they knew that I had no idea who I was talking to when I was speaking to them.

I would prefer to think that I’m not one of these people. I prefer to think that I’ve made conscientious choices that have made me a Bud man, and a Pepsi drinker, based on the flavor of those drinks. I understand that the feds prohibited Budweiser, and all alcohol producers, from showing people drink alcohol in their TV commercials, so they decided to sell a lifestyle that those that consume their products purport to enjoy, but have I enjoyed the projection of the lifestyle in those commercials so much that I began enjoying their products more? My friends would ‘pshaw’ at such reflection, for they know who they are. They know that they’ve made conscientious choices in the products that they’ve decided to consume, but the fundamental question remains: Are they buying their product based on the refined tastes that they profess to have, or the lifestyle that those products purport to produce? Anytime we purchase a product to a point of brand loyalty, are we making the statement that we are informed consumers that choose to purchase one product over another based on individual tastes, or are we attempting to purchase a lifestyle that some part of us knows we’ll never achieve, until we purchase it so often that we are?