We're All Merely Pawns in Big Pumpkin's Spicy Conspiracy

jack-o-lantern wearing tin foil hat
Ted McGrath/Thrillist

Friends, something sinister is afoot.

Every year, Pumpkin Spice Day (the day in which PS products are released into the atmosphere) happens earlier and earlier, and, like clockwork (orange?), we in the food media go through a circus act of faux-outrage that we can’t believe this item is out before the leaves have turned, and our Martin Van Buren Halloween costumes have been purchased, and the teenagers have started throwing recently picked apples at cars. It’s all so ridiculous and silly and arbitrary, but also here’s a quick review of how it tastes and a few product shots and a brief history.

It’s incredible we’ve come this far with Pumpkin Spice, Starbucks product manager Peter Dukes’ 2003 invent— AHHHH NOT GETTING SUCKED INTO GIVING THE BACKSTORY. There are no other food items that so singularly control a seasonal narrative year after year. In fact, the only other thing that used to fall into that category was Christmas Decorations in Stores, and admittedly there was something comforting about setting your watch to Andy Rooney’s 60 Minutes screed about the indecency of seeing a Frosty the Snowman in Marshall Field & Company before Thanksgiving.

We in the food media are helpless to battle against the coming orange tide.

Because the Pumpkin Spice marketers are so skilled, we in the food media are helpless to battle against the coming orange tide, and so we must engage with the PS or face the wrath of our corporate overlords who need those sweet PS-related views to sell advertisements so they can continue to pay us and we can continue to buy Pumpkin Spice products on our own time. A few people are able to create truly great unique PS content (for example, the Week-Long Maura Judkis Pumpkin Spice Experiment of 2017), but everyone else ends up filing something that falls into one of three categories:

1) The (Updated) Piggy Back History

A classic template in the annals of internet content history, this is when you tell the story of Pumpkin Spice built using everyone else’s reporting, but with just enough of your own panache (say reaching out to an industry analyst!) to not feel like you plagiarized.

2) The Winkingly Annoyed Screed

There are several iterations of this. Most of them are basically news stories shrouded in the mask of faux-anger, but some try and offer up a counter-hot-take, like announcing you’re super pro-PSL and wish it were here year-round! The problem with these is it is truly difficult to really build up enough hostility (or excitement) for PS for it to feel authentic and thus you have to pull in some anger (or excitement) from somewhere else in your life, and that is fundamentally unhealthy and will have unforeseen consequences later on in life.

3) The Taste-Test

This is where people taste things in a test format.

Once those stories are out, everyone, incredibly, falls in line on social media. Whether you tweet about them ironically or earnestly, or post an “obligatory #PSL shot” on Instagram even though NO ONE IS OBLIGATED TO DO THAT or join Starbucks’ new fall-focused “Leaf Rakers Society” Facebook page, or attempt to do a meta-analysis of the situation because you feel like maybe you can somehow be above it all even though you’re just playing right into their hands, Kevin, Big Pumpkin Spice (picture a more corporate version of the Great Pumpkin from Charlie Brown) wins. It’s masterful really. They just sit back in their orange Eames lounge chairs in their corporate offices smoking cigars and watching as we helplessly enter the Pumpkin Spice feedback loop, which smells of clove and cinnamon and nutmeg (and actually didn’t include any pumpkin until three years ago).

So what does all this mean? Is this yet another sign that the apocalypse is nigh? Because, in some respects, there’s something retro about PS’s universal call and response, possibly because there are few things in our society that aren’t fractured down into little niche subgroups defined by secret algorithms based on Amazon purchases, so to see everyone reacting to the same thing is kind of weirdly refreshing or nostalgic, even if it is being orchestrated by corporations for profit.

Most of us now can’t even recall a time when we weren’t able to spread Pumpkin Spice cream cheese on our Pumpkin Spice Cronuts by Labor Day.

Or maybe it’s just the last new iteration of all the other ways we are currently manipulated (see: every other holiday), but the genius of this is the fact that Big Pumpkin created a sub-holiday based around a drink, rather than a drink based around a holiday (see: Eggnog Latte). The Big Pumpkin Manipulation Technicians had the prescience to expose the soft, flabby underbelly of the end of summer malaise and manufacture an association to a specific product. But unlike, say, the Daylight Savings Time conspirators of 1918, who sowed clock chaos in an effort to sell more Raggedy Ann dolls under sunlight’s kiss and were routinely lambasted in the press, PS skulked into our consciousness Inception-style and most of us now can’t even recall a time when we weren’t able to spread Pumpkin Spice cream cheese on our Pumpkin Spice cronuts by Labor Day.
Either way, the truth is there is an even more dastardly play for Big Pumpkin Spice, a sneaky genius move whispered about in the more extreme subsections of corporate circles that would cause everyone caught up in the collective Pumpkin Spice culture — food media, Leaf Rakers Society members, Linus from Charlie Brown — to lose their shit. A move so damn Machiavellian that Machiavelli himself would insist that he was no longer worthy of the term. A move so far beyond the pale that even the most hardened, bold marketing strategists of the last century only talk about it in hypothetical terms while sitting on public park benches next to their lawyers.

They could put out the Pumpkin Spice Latte in October.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. Sell him Raggedy Ann dolls over the internet @KAlexander03.