Stuck In The Middle

Every once in a while, when the Mud Truck is in the shop, I end up at Starbucks, in line behind someone who orders a small or a medium coffee, which is always a humorous moment. Of course, Starbucks doesn’t sell small or medium coffees. They sell talls, grandes and ventis—a naming scheme that irritates some people and is kind of silly, since tall and grande both basically mean large, while venti is Italian for twenty (referring to the number of fluid ounces). Sometimes these customers are just unaware that Starbucks plays this little name game. But sometimes, I think, they order smalls and mediums on purpose—as a little symbolic protest against Starbucks’ assault on anything that might be slightly less than enormous.

In today’s consumer landscape, everything is big and getting bigger, and that’s the way it should be. Unless things should be really small and getting smaller—which is the other runaway trend. Cell phones, MP3 players, teenage celebrities—the tinier, the better. Particularly big lately is the word mini—the Mini Cooper, the iPod mini; even Google has come out with Google Mini (though I’m not sure what it is—is it a tiny search engine, or does it search for really tiny things?).

More than ever, it seems, consumer culture hums along on these two simple formulas: Bigger is better. Less is more. And very little in between. You can see it in the kinds of things that get a lot of buzz: The Hummer and the Mini. The Enormous Omelet Sandwich and the Fruit & Walnut Salad. Kirstie Alley and Lindsay Lohan. The Biggest Loser and The Littlest Groom. You can see it in advertising, too: The 30-second spot is dead, but the two-minute Web film and the two-inch-wide Google search ad are hip.

This all-or-nothing dynamic seems to be getting more pronounced, probably thanks to American consumers’ continuing schizophrenic pursuit of more and less—their obsession with self-indulgence on the one hand and self-improvement on the other. (I guess that’s how you wind up with a country that’s both obese and fixated on dieting.) But whatever the deal is, it sure is bad news for one innocent bystander: medium.

If medium were a brand, it would drag its hobbled self to an ad agency and demand a relaunch. (Actually, Medium is a brand. Of shoes. Which you’ve never heard of.) Next to larger, wider, thinner and sleeker, medium looks ridiculous. It feels noncommittal. Wishy-washy. Silly. Halfhearted. Uncool. It feels bad.

Advertisers can’t do much with medium. Apparently, it’s harder to sell anything that doesn’t have either 6,000 calories or zero calories. That won’t make a gazillion dollars at the box office or get raves for its “indie spirit.” That doesn’t have 8-foot-high wheels and a V12 or else fit into a parking spot meant for a bicycle. That can’t claim to be bigger or smaller—or generally better—than it actually is. Even the notion of moderation—medium’s ace in the hole—has fallen on hard times. It’s so uncool that it gets confined to its own morose “Know when to say when” ads, and is kept at arm’s length from the more fun-loving ones.

As consumer culture spins faster, things look bleak for medium. In fact, its only hope may be that someday, it will fall so far out of fashion that it will become cool. When everything else in the marketplace is supercharged and shrink-wrapped and double-wide and extra-lightweight, medium could suddenly seem special. There could be a backlash, and people could start asking for medium by name.

It could happen. In fact, it’s already happening. At Starbucks, anyway.