Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino Is a Prison Without Walls

Food Features Unicorn Frappuccino
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Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino Is a Prison Without Walls

A social media coordinator at Starbucks one day noticed people on Instagram liked the youthful conceit of unicorns and bright colors — this was, presumably, the genesis for the infamous “Unicorn Frappuccino.”

Annie Black has already covered the vital stats of the drink, so I won’t bore you with them here. Suffice to say one of its key ingredients was “blue drizzle.” (Of course, we all remember going blue drizzle picking with our parents in the crisp autumn air.)

What’s interesting about the Unicorn Frappuccino is that it was only ever incidentally a drink: it was, primarily, a product of the culture industry.

Traditionally, the culture industry produces works (film, television and the like) that fulfill the purposes of investors: produce returns on capital and reinforce beliefs that promote the interests of the powerful. Captain America films routinely top the box office and remind the audience what war without end is really all about: celebrity hunks, PG-13 banter and winky in-jokes.

There are new players in the culture industry, though. Every large company is now complicit in creating a rainbow-colored stream of amusement and “mindless fun” to be consumed uncritically, from Raytheon to (you guessed it) Starbucks.

The Unicorn Frappuccino sucked, and everyone knew it sucked, but it was nonetheless one of Starbucks’ biggest profit makers in recent memory. The Unicorn Frappuccino is insidious not necessarily because it is vapid or gross (it is), but because it is yet another way more of our lives are being colonized by late-stage capitalism.

“Just stay tuned in,” said former CEO Howard Schultz, commenting on the massive profitability of the product, “because we have a lot more coming.”

I find the Unicorn Frappuccino, and the sort of simplistic brightly-colored glee (“mindless fun”) it inspires, kind of unsettling.

“Even during their leisure time,” write Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (the 1943 book that defined the term “culture industry”), “consumers must orient themselves according to the unity of production.”

If you’re not making money for someone else by producing something, you should be consuming stuff (and advertising it). Horkheimer and Adorno were talking about getting home from work just to watch ads on television (with some incidental Andy Griffith thrown in every few minutes to keep your attention). But today, it goes deeper.

US Weekly (famously not German Marxists) wrote of the Unicorn craze: “Instagram users aren’t satisfied merely holding and sipping … now people are matching their looks to their Unicorn Frappuccinos!” Hold the drink in the photo, and project the pre-rendered image of the company onto yourself — your hair, your clothes, your identity as it is shared with others, provided pre-chewed courtesy of Starbucks.

But where are you in the equation, really?

Think about home delivery recipe boxes. They cheerfully purport to send you a perfect package of ingredients, pre-portioned, pre-cut, with careful steps, so you can prepare a meal exactly as intended, make it look like the meal on the card, and not have any pesky spices left over.

Will making the recipes another person designs and takes 90 percent to completion for you make you a better chef? Will you have created your meal, or merely been an incidental participant in a broader machine that creates your meal for you? What, in this process, are you other than a cooking robot made of skin?

From the point of view of the boardroom, any drink that does not play to the provable and inferable desires of its customers to do and be something is viewed with mistrust. With the Unicorn Frappuccino, Starbucks is not in the process of selling blended drinks, but of creating pre-mixed experiences for its customers to slot into to cheerfully advertise to one another, based on what’s safe.

The challenging, novel and dangerous are explicitly excluded from this process.

Remember “fusion cuisine”? In the 1980s, chefs (most famously Wolfgang Puck) stepped back from traditional ways of blending flavors, and looked to the spice racks of other cultures to create interesting new dishes. Well, that’s not quite how it went. Through the 1990s, fusion food became ubiquitous … and kind of a joke. Fusion spread in the high-end kitchens, the commercial cookbooks and eventually the Cheesecake Factories.

Now, Wolfgang Puck Inc. is now concerned less with food as expression and experience, but rather, novelty as a corporate strategy. Food that satiates only incidentally — instead, food that amuses the diner, with little imagination or invention left for him or her in the doggy bag. What started as cultural experimentation left us with a muddy mixture of international “street food” most working people can’t even afford, but brings bored yuppies together every weekend without fail.

Late capitalism, ultimately, cannot be trusted with culture — including food — because it will always produce endless sequels, crossovers and reboots … even to drinks.

Cultural experience — something authentic, enjoyed autonomously, must be “purposiveness without purpose,” an activity that exists outside the market. It is in seizing the creative space from “mindless fun” that we can reclaim autonomy; to do and be something more than a participant in a market, endlessly buying and selling.

The Unicorn Frappuccino shuts down identity and individual expression, requiring from us only our desire to be amused with empty cultural calories and neon banality.

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