Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tim Horton's Drive-Thru Coffee Brought to You by Coca-Cola©

Last year I found myself sitting in a Tim Horton’s drive-thru in Gravenhurst Ontario; a town of about 11,000 people located 100 miles north of Toronto, Canada. Not one who is privy to these sorts of experiences, I was somewhat in awe by two very interesting characteristics of this drive-thru. First, as I’m figuring out where the line of a dozen or so vehicles ends, I notice a second adjacent lane that is meant to absorb over-flow traffic so that the lineup doesn’t extend into the main street. Similar to the ending of a passing lane, vehicles are expected to merge into one lane as they approach the intercom. Drivers knew to take turns: left lane, right lane, left lane, right lane….it worked seamlessly. Customers either were frequent users of this drive-thru or, unlike me, were smart enough to figure it out.

Second, as you make your way around the corner to place your order, drivers are exposed to a string of advertisements posted on a long cement wall adjacent to the outlet. Printing companies, insurance companies, financial institutions, auto mechanics, you name it, a whole host of companies taking advantage of this apparently lucrative advertising space. As the driver behind me crudely leaned on his horn for me to close my jaw and move forward, I couldn't help but reflect on the absurdity of what I was observing and how this symbolized a number of very disturbing trends in our Western society.

First and perhaps more obviously, the popularity of the drive-thru illuminates our very sedentary lifestyle. If there are any doubters out there that our consumer-oriented society is linked to obesity, one only has to take a look at this fascinating phenomenon. The fact that there is now a market for advertising in what was once an unpopular or at least peripheral means of getting served shows that we live in a society where walking on our own two feet is a nuisance. Shopping complexes are built with stores separated by massive parking lots encouraging consumers to move their vehicle from one store to another. This reminds me of the creative Disney film Wall-E where an envisioned future shows human civilization restricted to a hovering chair that has all the amenities available at the touch of a button. In the same way that we hover to make our orders in the drive-thru would we hover into our houses if the technology were available?

Second, the drive-thru has become so commonplace that the line-ups in the store that originally motivated the drive-thru are all but gone. This means that the time actually saved is marginal. In fact, substantial time is lost when you are vehicle number 15 when no one is in the store. It’s no wonder that when one actually goes in the store, they are neglected because staff are catering to the onslaught of customers making their way through the drive-thru.

Third, and more striking to me, is the fact that there is an apparently lucrative market to offer advertising space along the drive-thru route. There is so much traffic that marketers consider this platform to be an effective means of spending their advertising dollars. This either means that we’ve come to a point where we slice and dice every possible combination of opportunities to bombard people with messages or it means that a majority of Gravenhurst citizens go through this drive-thru. Perhaps it’s a combination of these. Whatever the case, I can’t help but consider this to be a sad state of affairs that very likely extends beyond this sleepy town.

The documentary “The Greatest Movie Every Sold” by Morgan Spurlock (see his Ted talk) nicely illuminated the extreme nature of corporate involvement in society by symbolically funding the entire film with product placements. The film was likely trying to illustrate the potential dangers of living in a society that is wholly owned and funded by corporations. Recent public services such as education and health care, in light of tightening budget constraints, have explored corporate product placements as a means of generating revenue.

Is there anything wrong with the bombardment of advertising in our lives? Is the above Tim Horton's example merely the evolutionary nature of advertising doing its work? Or is this a warning of a potentially perverse future that derides our sense of reality and objectivity at a time when many of us are searching for truth and meaning?

Photos taken by the author

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