Unicorn Frappuccino: How Starbucks Is Lowkey Educating Us on Social Media Manipulation

I tried it. The Unicorn Frappuccino.

The bright pink coffee-less Starbucks creation broke the internet when news of it’s arrival leaked a few days ago. Now we’re on day 2 of the sugary drink’s blink-and-you’ll-miss it 5-day run.

Like anyone on the internet, I’ve found Unicorn Frappuccino madness pretty hard to ignore. But when I caved and bought one today, I noticed something.

This is what the Unicorn Frappuccino looks like, according to it’s official promotional photo on Starbucks’ Instagram.

It’s no secret that the drink was created specifically because of the recent unicorn food trend on Instagram. This beverage was literally designed to be photographed for Instagram. That is the entire purpose.

FullSizeRender (1)To my surprise, when the barista called my name, the drink in front of me was not quite the the mystical beverage Instagram had led me to believe I’d receive.

My Frappuccino was not the color I expected. It turned out to be much lighter than any of the promotional images, and the majority of the social media photos I’d seen when scrolling through #unicornfrappuccino.

Nope, most of what I’d seen about it was a lie.

Or, if not a lie, than at least a very targeted misrepresentation. If everyone is buying this drink just to Instagram it — and to have photos that look just like the rest of social media’s — they’re in for a rude awakening when they pick up their Frappuccino.

FullSizeRender (3)In order to get this photo Instagram-ready, I had to edit it significantly  — I pumped up the color saturation to almost the maximum amount, stopping only when I felt I’d reached a point where the colors looked obviously altered.

If you’ll notice, getting the colors right on the drink had some pretty awkward effects on my whipped cream, which looks less like a deliciously sweet topping and more like a glowing amorphous blob.

But no one on the internet is buying this for what it tastes like. I’ve barely heard any talk of the sweet-and-sour flavor combination: tart blue drizzle inside a pink mango-flavored blend of cream. ( …if it’s even mango flavored at all. The internet told me it’s is made with white chocolate, or maybe vanilla — make up your mind, internet! — and mine had a distinct raspberry flavor).

So, now the big question:

When the product we receive doesn’t match what we thought we were getting — how do we respond?

The answer, apparently, is by manipulating our photos until it looks like with think they should. Here are some of the photos I found scrolling the hashtags on Instagram. The photo in the center is the only Frappuccino shown in its actual color. All the others have been heavily edited and filtered.

Most obvious is the Frappuccino on the top left: The drink looks gorgeous — bright magenta with neon blue — but the color of the pool water behind it has clearly been edited. No one has a pool with water that shade of aqua. And the red bracelet also shows obvious signs of being enhanced. Where have you seen red thread that bright and vivid?


For anyone who has actually purchased a Unicorn Frappuccino, the product we bought IRL looks nothing like the image we’re posting online.

Everyone realizes the disconnect. And most people choose to post their own heavily-edited images anyway.

Which is why I’m wondering … maybe that is, in part, what Starbucks’ intended.

What if Starbucks is actually trying to teach us a lesson about social media? What they’ve done with the Unicorn Frappuccino is brilliant on a couple of fronts.

On the surface, it’s a wonderful marketing campaign, picking up on a huge trend (unicorn food) and creating a beloved and highly-sharable beverage that will spread like wildfire on social media.

“Uni” is Japanese for sea urchin, so this sort of made me want to eat sushi.

But below the surface, it’s also a customer experience that can make people think critically about their social media habits and expectations.

For years, we’ve all been complaining about how inauthentic social media is: how people’s lives seem so perfect on Facebook, and how difficult it is to feel like you don’t measure up to other people’s perfectly-curated social media lives.

Every image on Instagram is perfectly posed, well lit, edited, and filtered to be absolutely perfect — and to paint a very calculated picture of a person’s life.

We all complain about how fake social media is, but nobody actually does anything about it. We all keep posting happy pictures of our perfect, perfectly-curated lives, while loudly lamenting how frustrating it is that you can never really be yourself on social media. It can all feel like such a facade.

As one of the most powerful brands in the world — and a brand that attracts the very demographics who are most likely to participate in social media inauthenticity and manipulation — Starbucks has a unique opportunity to enter into this conversation, and speak about social media facades with a voice that will actually be heard.

FullSizeRender (2)But if you’re trying to educate people about social media inauthenticity, what is the most effective way to communicate that?

It wouldn’t help to tell people outright. Nobody likes to be told what to do — especially if we’re being told to stop doing something that everybody else is doing.

No, we all learn best by experience. We don’t want to be ordered to change our behavior. We have to figure it out on our own. We have to encounter a situation so jarring and inauthentic that we can’t ignore it.

Until we’re forced to encounter the disconnect in our lives, we won’t have the motivation to address the problem or change our behavior.

We rarely tell the full truth on social media. Everything we post is targeted to paint a specific picture of our lives. In news reports about the April 2017 San Bernardino shooting, where a man shot his estranged wife, killing her and one of her students, in the elementary school where she worked as a special education teacher — it’s almost chilling to read how the shooter talked about his wife on social media.

His Facebook page gushed with praise for his bride. By all appearances on social media, he was head over heels in love, and their relationship seems practically perfect. Yet days after fawning over his wife on Facebook, this man — whose wife feared for her safety and had moved out of their home — walked into her school, shot multiple students, shot her, and then killed himself.

The Unicorn Frappuccino effect is a lighthearted and innocuous representation of an important (and patently overlooked reality). Our lives on social media are not the same as our lives in real life. The images we post on social media do not reflect what’s actually happening.

The San Bernardino tragedy is an extreme example. But it illustrates a basic truth. We have normalized subtle and not-so-subtle manipulation to the point where we don’t even recognize how manipulative we’re being anymore. To post on social media is to exaggerate (or perhaps even lie about) yourself to the world.

It’s a reality that no one ever talks about. We edit, pose, and manipulate so much that manipulation has almost become the standard way of being on social media. When manipulation has become this deeply ingrained in our culture, someone needs to bring it into the light. Someone needs to expose it.

With their Unicorn Frappuccino, Starbucks appears to have done just that. Now, the question is: will anybody listen?


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