by Judith Williamson
At the end of the 1980s, sociologist Ray Oldenberg developed the concept of the ‘Third Place’ in a book called The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlours, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. If the first and second places are home and work, the third place is somewhere in between, at once public and intimate, where communities meet and social bonds are formed. In British culture, the pub has traditionally been a staple third place; one could argue that libraries – currently under threat from budget cuts – are another.
The idea of the Third Place has been taken up over the last twenty years by community planners – and also, self-consciously, by coffee shop chains, in particular, Starbucks. The term has featured in many of its leaflets and ads, and informs every aspect of a Starbucks branch, even down to the décor and furniture. Sofas and armchairs create the sense of a living room away from home, while wi-fi provides the facilities of the workplace. Even the mode of service and self-seating plays a part: once you have collected your drink you can sit where you like and nobody will move you on.
The current Starbucks ad, featured in a variety of newspapers, conjures up the notion of the Third Place in all but name. The text in the ad both refers to this concept with carefully crafted slogans, and embodies it through precisely chosen type forms. "The world has a pause button", states the main caption, claiming that this is where you can step off the treadmill, take time out, relax. The typewriter typeface of this slogan gives a feeling of immediacy, as if typed by human hand: it also strongly signifies ‘journalism’. This tallies with the significance of the range of electronic items littered around the table, the words themselves taking meaning from a now obsolete journalistic medium which directly contrasts with the up to date paraphernalia pictured. Nevertheless, together they suggest what one might call ‘human media activity’. If this gives the sense of work, the words in the bottom right corner provide both a pivot and a contrast. "You and Starbucks" in crisp sans serif, creates a neutral bridge between the two slogans, simply connecting ‘you’ and Starbucks without any comment on the nature of the relationship. Underneath this, "It’s bigger than coffee" is written as handwriting, giving the intimate, personal touch and asserting that the ability of Starbucks to stop the world while you get off for a break is a much bigger emotional deal than just providing you with a beverage.
The intimacy suggested by the ‘bigger than coffee’ caption is expressed most strongly by the photo itself, which shows not a coherent view of a Starbucks interior but a person’s eye view of a table top bordered by fragments of young people in mid-interaction. A woman is leaning forward laughing, but with the top of her head cut off; next to her we see the smile of someone’s face but little else, their eyes out of frame; and, finally, a person’s hands only, holding coffee and gesturing – it seems that this is the one amusing the others. A common ad structure would be to locate the viewer as this figure, as if the hands were your own, yet the camera is in the wrong place for such a positioning, and instead the viewer is placed on the edge of the group, almost as an eavesdropper. The laughing woman is not looking towards us: we are not in on the joke and our gaze is directed not at the people but at their clutter.
The characters are shown as dynamic, witty and relaxed, but they are not central to the image. The centre stage, brightly illuminated by sunlight falling across the table, is held by the jumble of drinks, cakes, and forms of communication or media devices. These appear to include: books, newspapers, a range of hardback notebooks and exercise books, a spiral bound notebook, a Filofax, a mobile phone, an iPod, a smartphone and a camera.
All these add up to the clear suggestion that the people pictured are involved in some kind of interesting media activity: scriptwriting, film making, reporting. They may be having a laugh over a coffee, but they also appear to be surrounded by work. For the ad is underpinned by a strong contradiction – between the basic grammar of advertising language and its own message. To signify dynamic young media people, who it clearly wants to portray as key customers, the ad must employ the items listed above and shown strewn around the table top. However, a smartphone next to a cup cake is still a smartphone: the world of work doesn’t seem to have paused all that much. To present ‘dynamic media workers’ having a break, the ad must portray, precisely, dynamic media workers, through the accoutrements that signify them: to leave these out, and show a true ‘pause’, would leave the ad devoid of buzzy signifiers and just give us some faces and hands and coffee cups. Here are media people NOT working, the ad claims – but to signify this, it must still in fact present their work. This is a contradiction inherent in pictorial advertising: it also explains why the scene here is not actually as relaxing as the captions purport.
In reality, Starbucks provides perhaps the most desperately grasped Third Place for a very particular group: carers with babies and young children. The average Starbucks on any day contains a range of customers: certainly there are usually quite a few with laptops, depending on the location, but also, in all but the most urban branches, hordes of buggies and charging toddlers show that the need for a home-from-home is felt most acutely by those who are alone with kids. However, the ad trades on the exact opposite demographic, the young and work focused. Starbucks is choosing to present the image of a Third Place for the Filofax and iPod crowd, a far more limited, but apparently more desirable community than the one it actually attracts.