October 05, 2015
As cases of the Mondays go, this week’s was particularly challenging. Blame it on Starbucks and the fact that I woke up in a country that finds it acceptable to drop $361 million on pumpkin-spice gimmickry.
Most of us need a coffee-based pick-me-up to get the day started right. I'm no different. When I got to the kitchen at the crack of dawn, though, the only K cups left for use featured the words “Pumpkin Spice” in orange lettering on them.
This realization prompted a loud, grumpy #firstworldproblems sigh heretofore unheard. Visceral disdain for the pumpkinspiceification of America’s autumn came into clear focus.
This cultural abomination started with Starbucks introducing the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003.
"When you taste PSL, it tastes just like fall,” Peter Dukes, director of Espresso and Brewed Coffee for Starbucks, was quoted as saying at one annual reappearance of the devil’s swill.
You know what else tastes just like fall? Chewing on a dead leaf. And, here’s a tastes-like-fall fun fact: It took 11 years for the “PSL” to actually include, you know, pumpkin. But I digress.
This isn’t an issue of pumpkin purity. It’s a matter of corporate America seeing the fiscal boondoggle raked in by a coffee behemoth, putting its collective hand out, saying “Where’s my cut, boss?” and slapping a Pumpkin Seal of Approval on everything from the TastyKakes we humans eat and the meals that sustain our pets to the beers and vodkas we drink. Big Pumpkin doesn’t even come close to stopping there, but you get the point.
I like coffee. And TastyKakes. And beer. And vodka. And hummus. And any other number of products that now find it necessary to sprinkle a little seasoning (some of it available year-round, mind you) into the mix and declare itself part of the Jack O Lantern crew.
Yet, I find it hard to disagree with a former hostage negotiator named Len Gigante who, in attempting to counter the pumpkin onslaught, said, “it’s just out of hand. … We don’t eat Christmas trees.”
Out of hand, the pumpkin-based marketing most certainly is.
Without the caffeine necessary to start the day right, I headed up to my local Brown’s ShopRite location to see how bad it’s gotten.
In the bakery, a large sign drew attention to the fact that “Pumpkin Cream Pies” are available for $7.99.
While I didn’t see any Pumpkin Spice K-cups on the shelves – probably all sold out thanks to the culinary sheeple of the world – there was pumpkin imagery on a Herr's chips display sitting next to pumpkin-themed Pez dispensers.
Not too far away from that were TastyKake “Fall Pumpkin Spice” cupcakes, cookie bars and Pumpkin Cheesecake baked pies. Then, there was Kellogg’s “Krave” cereal (designed to look like mini-pumpkins), Pumpkin Spice Oreos, Pepperidge Farms Pumpkin Cheesecake and Thomas’ Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Swirl Bread.
Outside the supermarket’s entrance, however, a display selling actual pumpkins for $5.99 a pop sat three-quarters filled. Which leads to fun fact No. 2: Actual pumpkin sales have dropped while fauxpkin products skyrocket.
Think about that for a moment: People buy fewer real pumpkins these days but willingly oblige the marketing machine that turned a mediocre-tasting fruit into the Must Have Grub/Swill of the season.
Believe me, I get it. When I was a little kid, I anxiously anticipated the return of McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes. Limited-time-only foodstuffs do have their charm.
What didn’t happen was a Shamrock Shake-ification of American food sales. It was merely a treat offered at a single fast-food chain for a short period of time, akin to the McRib.
So why then do people fill shopping carts and coffee mugs with products purporting to taste like a warm-weather crop planted in July? I’d put money on a proposition bet in Vegas maintaining, “It's not because it tastes good; it's because consumers see and hear everybody else doing so, so they're fitting in with the cool-kid crowd.”
Far be it from me to tell people what to eat and drink, or maintain that some people don't just love the taste pumpkins real or fake. Heck, I like a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner.
But what I will say is this: America’s pumpkin craze is proof positive that people will drop hundreds of millions of dollars if an effective marketing campaign/conspiracy hits its sweet spot. Doesn't make me feel better about what that says regarding the culture in which we live, though.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a coffee. Cream and sugar; hold the pumpkin.