The Semiotics of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

9 November 2015 | By Sign Salad

Just what is it that makes Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte so different, so appealing?

… Hint: it isn’t pumpkin spice. Launched in 2003, the colloquially termed ‘PSL’ is Starbucks’ most popular seasonal beverage, with over 200 million being sold to date. The beverage has its own Twitter account (@TheRealPSL) and searching #PSL racks up almost 400k Instagram posts. Earlier this year, Starbucks proudly announced the recipe would now include “real pumpkin.” According to numerous London baristas, customers typically start requesting the drink around a month before its release in September, and are still asking for the PSL into December, around a month after it’s stopped being sold.

One of said baristas couldn’t understand why, on reviewing the sales figures, Starbucks didn’t offer this astonishingly popular drink all year round. Yet, of course, it is precisely the PSL’s limited availability that underlies much of its appeal, and its semiotic anchoring. The very lack of an official release date enhances the suspenseful hype that surrounds the beverage. Like the #starbucksredcup design that recently sparked such relative outcry, each year the PSL is both a predetermined ritual and a variable surprise.

Like the red cup that inevitably follows, the Pumpkin Spice Latte exemplifies a peculiar shift in the consumer landscape: whereas seasonal holidays once determined commodity signs, it’s now the commodity signs that delineate the holidays. Like falling leaves and bonfires, the PSL itself has become the harbinger of autumn, with Starbucks’ campaign even referring to ‘Pumpkin Spice Latte season.’

The immense popularity of the pumpkin flavour should be considered in light of the pumpkin’s cultural identity, reinforced by historical and modern codes. In drinking the beverage, we ‘harvest’ the ideological and emotional nourishment that surrounds the Fall season; family harmony, warmth, togetherness and child-like, liberated play. More sporadically than most common vegetables, pumpkins enter our autumnal lives through certain prescribed rituals. For centuries, families and friends have come together to carve the squash plant at Halloween, a routine that belies community harmony while formalising competitive pageantry. Like the jack-o’-lantern, the PSL is a form of [hollow] spectacle. Reams of Instagram posts, often featuring the Starbucks cup in a perfectly manicured hand, testify to the drink’s aesthetic utility as an accessory, a status symbol. Despite the reality of its nutritional makeup- tacking on roughly 100 calories to a regular caffè latte- pumpkin proffers a nutritious cache unattainable for such drinks as Starbucks’ Honey & Almond Hot Chocolate (60g+ sugar) or their Eggnog Latte (430 calories). A wholesome PSL won’t undermine the #foodie’s Insta feed.

The same supposed visceral benefits have helped sustain the pumpkin pie’s legacy as a staple at any Thanksgiving dinner. In cultural mythology, this observance dates back to the 1620s, when pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians supposedly dined on pumpkin pie and turkey to celebrate their safe passage to Massachusetts. Furthermore, in colonial history, the naturally abundant pumpkin was among the foods that helped see settlers through agricultural dearth. In the 19th century, Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Godmother of Thanksgiving” inaugurated the lavish banquet we know today. Her novel Northwood (1827) described “the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.” American poet John Greenleaf Whittier rhapsodized of the Thanksgiving ritual: “What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?” The nostalgia stirred by the pumpkin is intensified by its appearance in didactic lore; in its varying forms, the jack-o’-lantern folktale recalls a mischievous man who tricks the devil and winds up eternally barred from heaven and hell, wandering the earth with a carved out pumpkin lantern to guide his path. Cinderella was carried to the ball in a pumpkin carriage, delivering her from rags to riches. Such tales are part of the mythic allure surrounding the vegetable. In choosing a PSL, consumers are reminded of the wholesome values through which they first encountered its nominally distinguishing ingredient.

Aside from the ceremonial consumption of pumpkin pie, what unites the main rituals surrounding the orange squash plant is that the foodstuff isn’t eaten. Perhaps more than any other vegetable, the pumpkin occupies an ideological dimension centred on proving man’s cultivation of, and domination over, the natural world. At pumpkin festivals, traditional activities include oversized pumpkin weigh-ins, pumpkin ‘chunking’ (catapulting the vegetable from team-built devices) and competitions to amass as many lit pumpkin lanterns as possible. We celebrate the pumpkin by removing it from its agrarian environment as much as possible; it is this trend that culminates in such eccentric combinations as pumpkin ‘spice,’ Potassium Sorbate and espresso at Starbucks, along with the PSL’s commodity offspring: from the Oreo Pumpkin Spice Sandwich to Burt’s Bees lip balm.

From freshly carved ornamental lanterns to decorative wreaths, the holidays abound in material signifiers of renewal, combined with reassurance and familiarity. Every #PSL or #redcup season, something has changed- there’s a new app for sharing snaps of the drink, a new smartphone on which to download the app, a new cup design, a new flavour- not forgetting the accompanying changes in our personal lives. A fast-evolving world is particularly responsive to sentimental seasonal ads, as evinced by years of Coca-Cola campaigns, or John Lewis’ latest #ManOnTheMoon advert.  One Starbucks ad articulates the importance of nostalgia directly: a picture of two Pumpkin Spice Lattes beside the urge to: “take comfort in rituals.” In our alarming, frantic commercial culture, one thing will always remain unchanging: the Pumpkin Spice Latte, offered for three capricious months in autumn.

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