“One of the worst things a person can be,” purveyors of social commentary say in various ways, “is a consumer, and I say this in the most condescending manner possible.”
Such statements often receive wild applause and raucous laughter from esoteric, refined consumers in the audience, spurning them against buying products. An overwhelming majority probably considers such statements brave and bold, but they don’t consider the idea that the condemnation is direct at them too. No one, in such an audience, would stand up and say, “Hey, I’m a consumer. How dare you crack on my people?” These people picture a consumer they know, some poor sap who actually purchases consumable products. They know the truth, of course, but they define themselves against a marker of exaggerated contrast, and they’re often not objective enough to understand that authors of such quotes intend to include everyone but the author.
“What is the difference between consumers who deign to purchase consumable products sold at McDonald’s and those sold at the local mom-and-pop shop?” I would love to ask this of such authors. The answer, of course, would be that one while one may be a consumer, the other is a consumer, and we are to pronounce the latter 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 small mom and pop coffee shops the more erudite attend.
“Pshaw!” my friends responded, albeit not with that word exactly. They opted for more refined and somewhat polite (see condescending) words, but the message of that response was that they are more cultured than those involved in blind taste tests, more posh and eclectic. They eat sushi and Thai, after all, and they broaden their minds by listening to exotic podcasts and watching obscure documentaries.
I confessed that I couldn’t taste the difference between the beans, and most of the products I consume would be more at home on a 1950s table, before the research on food taught us what we now know. I confessed that I enjoy some broadcast television and I enjoy reading mainstream books sometimes. I may as well have admitted to being a Neanderthal.
These people are coffee aficionados. They enjoy exotic coffee beans exclusive to urban coffee shops that I’ve never attended. Their homes come equipped with exotic coffee makers that require minimal mixing times, gentle air pressure pushes, and low brewing times for professional cuppers and true coffee connoisseurs. I am not welcome in this world.
That 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, and others have cornrows and dreadlocks, but they are all very Euro. They also feel a little sorry for bourgeoisie like me, who know little beyond the pleasures of a mundane McDonald’s cuppajo. “Pshaw,” they say, but they would never actually 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, and organic foods. The posh, eclectic types don’t eat caviar anymore, beluga or otherwise. “Caviar is a product consumed by consumers with wealth,” they say in the most condescending manner possible. Their condescending caricature of consumers with wealth mirror those found in episodes of Scooby Doo, Captain Planet, and Gilligan’s Island. Caviar doesn’t provide prestige in community venues. Foie Gras is the new caviar.
“But blind taste tests conducted by various institutions, including Consumer Reports and other online Canadian websites found that McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee tested better than the products sold at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s,” I told my friends.
This didn’t shock them, as they heard tell of similar blind 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’ taste. (A phrase to read in the most condescending manner possible).
They answered my follow-up clarification with, “Oh, no!” and a titter almost leaked out in reaction to my lack of knowledge. That condescending titter may have made it out of the less refined. It was obvious to all of us that I knew nothing of coffee, and they appeared to be a little embarrassed on my behalf, for being so clueless to attempt to step foot onto their home turf.
“We don’t like Starbucks,” they said, “And we’ve never heard of this Tim Horton’s.”
They missed the general point I was trying to make, but it wouldn’t have mattered if the magazines performed specific blind taste tests on their specific brand of coffee. They would continue to consider themselves exceptions to the rule. They 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 with professional wine sippers. The tests incorporated cheap wines as well as expensive, exotic wine, and the goal was to see if the connoisseurs could tell the difference. The results were quite shocking. Not only did they exhibit an inability to discern between the chintzy and the pricey, but the brain scans of the professionals also revealed that they were not lying when they stated their preferences. Their brains actually altered with excitement when they drank the more expensive wine. One particular test asked controllers to place the same wine in two different bottles. They informed the professional sippers that the wine in Bottle A was expensive and exotic, while Bottle B contained a bargain brand. The subjects’ brain scans lit up in response to the contents detailed in Bottle A, allowing the conclusion that the professional sippers grew more excited by the expectation of sipping something more expensive.
Elevated expectations, in other words, are not limited to Pepsi drinkers, domestic beer drinkers, or those consumable products developed by corporations that spend billions on marketing to achieve brand name recognition. Some just prefer imported beer, expensive wine, and Colombian coffee. These allegedly high-end products define them in a manner they find pleasing, but we’re all products of marketing, packaging, and environment. Expectation might also lead us to believe a product can redefine us.
“Have you tried the latest lager from Djibouti?” Gucci asks Dior. “You simply must! 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 hue with dazzling reflections.” When Gucci concludes his exotic narrative, Dior must have it. Is Dior so excited to try it because Gucci’s narrative elevated his expectation? Maybe, but he also wants the aura and the identity inherent to drinkers of lager from an exotic sounding place like Djibouti. He wants that prestige, coated on his epidermis for the attendees of the next party he attends to see. The fact that those who have even heard of Djibouti could not spot it on a map makes its lager even more alluring. Even if Dior doesn’t know anything about Djibouti either, what’s a little pregnant pause between friends?
These types wouldn’t be caught dead sipping a McCafé drink, as those consumers who prefer a community venue that offers exotic coffee beans with exotic flavors for the exotic mind would define drinking that as consumerism in the most condescending manner possible. If they entered a community venue that offered an exotic coffee bean, and they saw paintings of cartoon clowns on the walls, my friends would consider the bean it produced inferior. If, on the other hand, that same venue had Matisse paintings on display and all the consumers donned goatees and dreadlocks, I’m quite sure they would be sipping on that same bean with a satisfied smile.
The advertisements for such products might not show sports heroes clinking glasses or horses kicking field goals, but that’s not who they want to be anyway. As they pass by their local McDonald’s, en route to the community coffeehouse that offers an environment more suited to someone with esoteric and refined taste, they scoff at American consumers who are susceptible to such blatant marketing. They do this without recognizing that the stratified American marketplace appeals to consumers and consumers.
If an individual attempts to open a McDonald’s franchise, the franchise adviser will inform them that all McDonald’s franchises must be X number of miles from the next nearest McDonald’s location. They base this notion on the fact that the marketplace cannot sustain two such facilities too close together. Those in charge of mapping out 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 is 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 this is much more feasible, as they appeal to such different demographics. The point is that those who believe they are not susceptible to the crass marketing schemes employed by the famous Golden Arches franchise may be right, but those marketing schemes are too immediate for Foie Gras eaters. They prefer a more subtle marketing scheme that appeals to quieter sensibilities, an environment tailored to their personality, and a presentation that speaks volumes with no slogans. They are different from consumers, but they are really 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, at least not to the degree that they can tell in a blind taste test. That may be an exaggeration of the extreme. Perhaps the Kopi Luwak coffee berry that passes through the digestive system of the Peruvian Civet Palm Cat, and is then picked out of that cat’s dung, is so refined that there is a discernible difference between that and McDonald’s coffee. On a linear scale (say Starbucks) McDonald’s coffee proves comparable in blind taste tests, if not superior.
Even if I presented this information in conjunction with the tests that suggest McDonald’s provides a superior cup of coffee, I’m sure these friends would pshaw me. Whether or not they’ve ever tried a selection on the McCafé menu, they would know it to be an inferior product. Their pshaw would contain elements of the messenger within a message, for they would assume that it was Americans who were involved in those blind taste tests, and those Americans were likely truck drivers and church goers from a place like Iowa. They would know that everyone they know knows better. They know I know little about coffee, and they know I have no idea to whom I’m talking when I’m talking to them.
I prefer to think I’m not one of these people. I prefer to think 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 visually representing humans consuming alcohol in their TV commercials. In reaction to this prohibition, marketers of such products began selling a lifestyle to those who might consume their products. We all watched those commercials, and we even enjoyed a few of them. Some of us might have unconsciously selected our brand based on the lifestyle those commercials projected, but did we enjoy the products more because we enjoyed the affiliation? My friends would pshaw at such reflection, for they know who they are. They know they’ve made conscientious choices in the products they’ve decided to consume, but the fundamental question remains: Are we buying products based on flavor, discerning tastes based on trial and error, or a level of refinement we gather with experience and age. Or, are we all susceptible to the purported lifestyle the marketing arms sell to consumers and consumers. When we begin to purchase a product to a point that we establish some level of brand loyalty, are we making the statement that we are informed consumers who choose one product over another based on our refined 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 do?
McRaney, David. November, 2011. You Are Not So Smart. New York, New York. Penguin Group (USA) Inc.