When Did It Become Okay To Play “Confuse the Consumer”?

Two Trying Consumer Tales

I have had two recent consumer experiences that make my head hurt.

These experiences are not earth shattering, but they have left this consumer mystified, frustrated and totally turned off by the retailers, manufacturers and the industries involved.

Let me ask you a couple of questions.

When is the last time you purchased a cup of Starbucks coffee?

Or when did you last purchase an energy efficient, CFL (compact florescent light) bulb?

What do beans and bulbs have in common?

Language.  A fictitious, incomprehensible language that has been plucked out of thin air for the sole purpose of frustrating and confusing consumers. One has to assume this is the purpose as the languages in question do nothing to facilitate the purchase of the products in question.

We’ll start with Starbucks

Starbucks' Coffee Sizes I am not a part of the Starbucks cult.  Months, years will go by and I never think of Starbucks.  However, it can be a convenient meeting place.  Every time I am in Starbucks, I have to walk through the same utter nonsense to identify the correct size of coffee.

Why oh why does Starbucks feel the need or the right to redefine common everyday terms like small, medium and large?  These are terms everyone in the universe understands. These terms quickly communicate the amount wanted.  Right?

But in Starbucks’ world small is “Tall” (which it ain’t).  Medium, which is 16 ounces, is “Grande”, which is Italian for “large”.  Yet, Starbucks doesn’t use “Sedici” which is Italian for sixteen, but they do use “Venti” for 20 ounces and “Trenta” for 30 ounces.

Which asinine Marketing person came up with this ridiculous way to refer to small, medium and large? It starts off in English, moves into Italian and includes two different measures – size versus ounces.

Making it worse is that Starbucks employees are rather insistent you use their terms to order.  Call me crazy, but I don’t want to order a “tall” if what I want is a “small”.  Let Starbucks do the translation, thank you.

Let there be light

Green Light Okay.  Let’s switch gears to light bulbs.

When was the last time you purchased a light bulb?  Specifically, an energy efficient CFL light bulb?  If it has been in the last 12 months, you know where I’m going.  If not, pay attention.

One of the energy efficient light bulbs…the CFL worth the price because it will last and last…burned out.  It wasn’t suppose to, but it did.

This leaves the bank of six recessed lights with one black hole in our kitchen ceiling.  Not a problem.  Get a replacement.  Right?  Oh if it were so.

The burned out bulb was from Lowe’s, but this specific bulb manufacturer was no longer being carried.

Obviously, we wanted the replacement light to appear as the other five bulbs.  We saw that the old bulb had a 3500 K, a measurement of the light “appearance”.  We then looked at the current options and were reminded of our initial foray into this totally dark and confusing world.

There are four bulb type options:

daylight, soft white, soft white household, or bright white

The language used to describe the type of light might as well be gibberish.

One might think the daylight light option would be perfect in a kitchen, but they would be wrong.  A daylight bulb gives the look and feel of an old, cheap prison.  Not a swanky Federal prison, but more like the dank basement of an old county prison of the 40’s.  Not at all appetizing.

The 3500 K on our burnt out light bulb indicated we wanted a “bright” white.  Great.

Wrong again.  In contrast to the other five CFLs, this bulb was a dingy, ugly yellow.  Apparently, the K code doesn’t translate across manufacturers even though it is supposed to.  But that’s okay, because the brand new light bulb that was to last 7.3 years @ 3.5 hours of daily use, lasted a measly 4 HOURS.

They do try.  A handy manufacturer’s light box guide illustrating the different types is installed in the light bulb department.  Problem is the overhead light in the hardware store – a bluish type of florescent light – distorts the results in the light box.  So, the guide is useless as well.

We go back and forth between Lowe’s, our ceiling and Home Depot and our ceiling.  A ton of time has been spent that will never be recouped trying to replace this one light bulb…a bulb that only lasted 4 months or its replacement that only lasted 4 hours.

At one point, we voice our frustration to the sales person who informs us we are not alone.  Small comfort knowing millions of Americans are wasting gas, energy and time trying to buy a simple light bulb that is, ironically, designed to save energy.

I would tell you what type of bulb ultimately worked, but it doesn’t matter.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this ridiculous episode will be played out again in the future.  If not by us, by my neighbor, you or any one in need of light.

I ask again.  When did it become okay to play “confuse the consumer”? 

When one can’t use common terms to communicate the desired size of coffee or the type of light bulb, something is terrible, terrible wrong. Not wrong as in the earth won’t turn or the sun won’t come up…but just wrong in a common sense sort of way.

Many moons ago, Seth Godin did a talk that focused on all sorts of everyday happenings that didn’t really work for the customer.  Airline check-in (pre-TSA), hotels, rental cars, etc. His recommendation was that the process was broken if it didn’t work for the consumer and companies needed to…


Per Merriam-Webster, the definition of “language” is:

a : the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community

Starbucks, the manufacturers of CFLs and any other company that wants to create its own undecipherable language, may want to first ask if the proposed words communicate to its community of consumers or is it just useless window dressing.

If it is useless, drop it.

What are your thoughts?  You should share them in the comments section below.


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Sheila Hibbard

Sheila Hibbard takes the fluff, hype and confusion out of marketing and social media. She provides small business owners with straight forward, no nonsense marketing guidance and techniques that produce results based on her 35 plus years in advertising, communications, research, strategic planning and social media. Author of Marketing Online Made Simple - WHO.

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    • Thanks, Annie. I appreciate your comments.

      My expectations are pretty par…they don’t have to demonstrate “brilliance”. I would be very satisfied with a dose of common sense.

  1. Well hmmmm when it comes to Starbucks I hear ya AND I think we are smart enough-have good enough critical thinking skills we can figure out which cup will fill our needs.

    “How many oz is a tall vs a grande?” ..would be my question, then make a choice.

    NOW, lights are not that simple. SO are you telling me that bulbs do not give us watts anymore on the package? ( can you tell it has been a little bit since I bought one?)

    You are correct, we should not have to maneuver a new measurement scale every time we choose a new brand when making our purchase decision.

    • Hey, Michele. I’m sticking to my small, medium and large!

      Yes…it must have been awhile since you bought any CFLs. The CFLs do give watts, but there is a new measurement – the K – that is suppose to help you determine the “type” of light the bulb will create…soft, daylight, etc.
      Problem is the type of lights are not comparable across manufacturers or perhaps within a manufacturer line, so you don’t know until you plug it in what the heck it will look like.
      Glad to hear you agree. Thanks, Michele.

  2. Starbuck’s 8 oz. is their smallest size – named short. and it’s not on the menu.

    Good luck if you order a small; You won’t get a short, you’ll get a tall.

    Does that clear everything up …

    • Why, yes, it does. About as clear as mud. If they referred to their “short” as petite we’d have another nationality represented. :)

      Thanks for your comments, Don. Much appreciated.

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