Other revolutions don’t announce themselves with such fervor. Do you remember when you started using a cell phone, started emailing or first used Facebook? Those activities probably didn’t seem like such big deals then but one day you woke up and everyone was doing it. Unlike the introduction of Apple’s iPod, iPhone, and iPad, most technological advances seem to just kind of happen. One day you know a little bit about them and by the next week, they’re ubiquitous. When you weren’t watching the world just seemed to change, causing enormous upheavals in various industries including journalism, advertising, education, and banking. As I’ve said before, “The future started yesterday.”
There’s an old wife’s tale about boiling frogs. Why any old wives would want to actually boil a frog is beyond me. But that’s not the point of this story so please bear with me.
The idea is that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out the very second it feels the heat. But if you start the frog off in a pot of cool water and then slowly turn the heat up, the frog will sit quietly until it’s parboiled.
Some revolutions are like that. They happen so quietly and so discreetly that you don’t even realize that they’ve occurred. They just become part of the air we breathe and the ground we walk on and we take them for granted as if they’ve always been there.
With that in mind, take a look at this Starbucks’ ad created by advertising wunderkind Dave Lubars, creative director at BBDO. Study it carefully and tell me what you find unusual. The letters in the headline are in different shades of brown but that’s not so odd. The descriptors Starbucks uses to identify their drinks (“Decaf,” “Syrup,” “Milk,” etc.) have been changed to romantic terms such as “Working. With you,” “Alone. Together,” “Table for Two,” but that’s not it either. And instead of just stamping the Starbucks trademark on the bottom of the ad the logo has been cleverly inserted by including it on a product shot, in this case a Starbucks cup with a frothy cappuccino in it. But that’s not it either.
What’s unique to this ad are the models, specifically the models’ sex. The model in the front is almost certainly male but the model in the back, in the red plaid shirt, could be a man or a woman. And all the details, from the watch to the bag, add to the ambiguity.
This is the first ad that I’ve seen from a major advertiser where the couple could be heterosexual or homosexual, depending on the viewer’s point of view. Do you want to see a man and a woman? Then there they are. Do you better identify with a gay couple? Then that’s who’s in the ad.
Most big companies only show gay couples in ads specifically aimed at gay audiences. The obvious thinking is that while the companies want to take advantage of the vast economy of gay consumers, they don’t want to risk offending other, less tolerant customers. But I’ve seen this ad in both Rolling Stone and The New York Times and while both have substantial gay readership, neither caters exclusively to that specific market.
Starbucks’ ad is really an amazing bit of sleight of hand – an ad chameleon that changes its orientation based on who is looking at it. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of Starbucks’ campaign – I’m curious to see if this piece is a one-off anomaly or the first shot quietly fired across the bow of the sexual orientation of traditional advertising.
I’ve read that Starbucks is also running this campaign on TV. I truly hope they’ve figured out a way to maintain their now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t androgynous approach. If they don’t, Gil Scott-Heron will be right after all. The revolution will not be televised.