The Ironic Semiotics of the Unicorn Frappuccino

17 May 2017 | By Sign Salad
ca. 1602 --- The Maiden and the Unicorn by Domenichino --- Image by © Alinari Archives/CORBIS

Mythical creatures are integral to civilization. Elusive & enigmatic, they represent our need to find mystery & magic in the banal, and have a habit of cult-forming. The unicorn – 2017’s favourite mythic beast, if you’ve been paying attention to social media – was ostensibly first identified by Pliny the Elder, writing in 1st century CE. One wonders if his contemporaries could have predicted the glittering explosion of ‘Unicornified’ phenomena  our recent cultural landscape has seen, from unicorn iPhone cases to holographic cosmetics. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia Encyclopaedia casts the unicorn as a hybrid animal: part horse, part stag, part boar and part elephant. The Frappuccino®, patented by Starbucks in 1995, is a hybrid beverage; part iced coffee, part frappé, and part cappuccino (that last one being debatable).

The Starbucks Frappuccino comes in many forms, from Caramel to the ‘Double Chocolaty Chip Crème Frappuccino Blended Crème’. Its blended nature makes the drink ideal for limited editions and special, sugary spins on the classic formula. Possibly the most culturally polarising spin on the beverage yet is the ‘Unicorn Frappuccino’, which launched in April 2017. Where this pink and blue concoction succeeds in offering drinkers a prize Instagrammable opportunity, it succeeds equally in giving coffee purists reason to despair.

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In an age constantly striving for the new, Starbucks have harnessed a symbol of the old. The unicorn has travelled through mythos and religion since the ancient world, coming to represent both innocence and violence. Its horn (“alicorn”) contains a latent, potentially phallic threat of penetration. At other times, the unicorn has represented the innocent Christ, and the purity of medieval maidens. Today, this double-edged sword/alicorn of the Starbucks Unicorn is embodied by the well-documented struggle of the wounded baristas, who’ve undertaken the labour of making the astonishingly popular beverages as orders come in from all angles.

Such unforeseen PR aside, Starbucks have promoted their Unicorn creation as an unknowable, illusory entity, in a way that speaks to a social media-driven age in which trends are rapidly over-saturated and then discarded. Online comms promise the beverage for “a few days only”, an indefinite statement inciting the eager suspense of a ‘get it before it goes’ mentality. The Unicorn Frappuccino additionally changes colour and flavour when drinking. Starbucks don’t offer footage of this metamorphosis – it’s for the drinker to witness, and ‘own’ the magic, lived moment. The past few months have seen a dramatic rise of live sharing and video, from Facebook Stories to Instagram. A snap of a skillfully constructed latte is suddenly rendered static and mundane by comparison to the Unicorn Frappuccino, which dances before the eye/iPhone. This share-worthy spectacle has transferred virtually all responsibility for the drink’s publicity to consumers, whose social media feeds become ambassadors for the beverage.

Unicorn-Toast-Featured

More broadly, unicorn and rainbow foods are part of a consumer-driven movement. Multi-coloured foodie creations began with online influencers such Adeline Waugh and her #unicorntoast (above). Starbucks’ recent product innovation also reflects a popular desire for ‘secret menu’ items and commoditised ‘hacks.’ Such creations aren’t really part of a ‘secret menu’ at all – their appeal is precisely that they don’t exist on official menus, except those forged by the social media-sphere. As such, these user-configured dishes (from Strawberry Lemonade at Chick-Fil-A to Burger King’s Suicide Burger) have become talismans of consumer empowerment. It’s not just about the gustatory taste of that triple-patty in a burger; it’s the satisfying taste of one’s own foodie influencer potential.

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Judging by the memes, the hijacking of the consumer-led Unicorn trend by a major coffee corporation is quintessential ‘basic’ behaviour. It’s worth asking, though: why do we feel the need to give otherwise regular foods names such as ‘mermaid’, ‘rainbow’ and ‘dragon’? Consumer culture’s response to the ‘basic’ is hyperbole. Millennials have often been noted for their collective sense of disillusionment. If coffee is just coffee, sometimes invoking the elaborate and mythic is essential.

Most interestingly, the cultural popularity of the ‘Unicornaccino’ (not its actual name) has counteracted the semiotic allure of the ‘Unicorn’ icon from the beginning. That is, unicorns are prized phenomena because they’re rare. They need to be hunted and captured. But thanks to the UFO (online culture’s Unicorn Fizz Obsession), the core meaning of the Unicorn as a singular sighting has been thoroughly lost. Where Starbucks’ so-termed ‘Unicorn’ drink represents ubiquity, however, ‘real’ coffee increasingly takes on the traditional symbolic status of the Unicorn figure – pure, untainted, covetable and strong.

– Katrina Russell, Semiotician

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