Froth before function

David Bernstein asks why nothing is ever fit for just one purpose any more.

The mantra is ‘convergence’. Technologies converge and individual appliances no longer reside in discrete boxes, literal or metaphorical. The mobile phone is a receiver/transmitter – of sound, text, e-mail and pictures, which it also takes – plus clock, Web browser, alarm system, video player, games player and, for all I know, nostril hair remover. It is the essential multi-tool, a latter day Swiss Army Knife.

I’m not knocking convergence as such, but I am dubious about the elevation of elaboration to an art form. Convergence is often divergence in disguise – divergence from a thing’s original purpose, that is.

The arch-priest of over-elaboration is Starbucks. I am bemused by the procedure of first understanding its offering and then ordering. Coffee to this addict has always meant a quick fix, promptly administered. Espresso, after all, implies speed.

Starbucks has clearly appreciated the dilemma of the innocent overawed by the complex. It has produced a four-page ‘beverage order guide’. (I kid you not. Go into any outlet and pick one up: it deserves to become a collector’s item.) It is subtitled: ‘How to order any Starbucks beverage’. Three examples are shown on the cover. The inside folds out. On the left you are invited to choose from any of the three illustrated container sizes. There are translations, though by no means literal, of venti, grande and tall, with their respective capacity details.

In the middle of the spread is a photo of the largest container, imprinted on which are six small, empty boxes, each captioned and from which emanate arrows to the right where the captions are explained. The boxes are marked Decaf, Shots, Syrup, Milk (you can choose from whole, skimmed and soya), Custom and Drink. Under Custom you are offered five areas of choice: temperature, wet (which in Starbucks-speak means no foam), dry (extra foam), whipped cream and added ‘caramel drizzle’. Under Drink it requests you to ‘choose from our menu board or ask a Barista to find what’s right for you’. What or who a Barista is it fails to say, though I don’t think it’s a Spanish QC.

Finally on the list, but not featured on the container, is the word Ice and the message: ‘The same drink you enjoy hot is just as delicious cold.’ Now they tell me.

Examples are provided, presumably for practice in the privacy of your home, of what you may actually say with your very own voice, for example, ‘Double Tall Latte’, which, of course, does not signify an extremely tall drink, since Tall equals small, or even a twice-the-size small one, but a latte (refer to the vocabulary and definitions of the seven types on the back) with an extra shot of espresso. You may, on the other hand, prefer a ‘Triple Grande Macchiato with Whipped Cream’.

Mind you, our business is by no means free from over-elaboration. I recall the days when the Advertising Creative Circle awards were few in number, the ads judged by your peers and the honours treasured and respected. There were no categories. Apples were compared with oranges, but the judges, Circle members, recognised creativity and effectiveness. Then things changed. Before long you could pick up an award for the best 30-second television launch commercial produced outside London for a motor vehicle under 2000cc (I kid you a bit).

What fuelled the change? The same thing that ignited the football shirt explosion. Just as the circle saw a way of generating revenue by fragmentation and charging entry fees, so Premiership clubs scented filthy lucre in excessive sub-branding and artificial obsolescence. A few seasons ago Manchester United produced three different away strips. Occasionally, you will see (and wonder why) an away team will change its strip when playing against a team whose colours don’t clash. My explanation: if the punter has laid out 40 quid for the garment, then the least the club can do is provide proof that it is actually used.

My club Arsenal will be changing their home strip in recognition of next season being their last at Highbury. And, of course, there will be another strip to celebrate their first season at the new Emirates stadium (Emirates is an anagram of Arse time in case you wondered).

The day is not far off when strips will be changed at half-time and the interval extended to accommodate sales to early adopters in the stands. Me? I’ll be having an Iced Tall Vanilla Skimmed Mocha.

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