Advertising and marketing stunts that changed the world – part 3

3. The coffee break

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

Coffee is becoming more and more popular and there are people who drink more coffee than any other beverage over the course of a day. Why is it so popular? Have you ever asked yourself that?


Have you noticed how there weren’t so many coffee shops, coffee vending machines and more importantly, not nearly as many Starbucks lying around at every corner, not even two decades ago?

In some countries coffee is even a currency. For example, in Eastern Europe (and I would bet everything that in other parts of the world as well) coffee is a currency or an “appreciation” gift. Even if you can’t really call it a bribe, sometimes it acts like one, in less important situation. For example, going to the doctors and giving him a pack of coffee nicely wrapped would insure faster and better service. The same applies to almost every public office or public worker. Bring coffee or alcohol as a sign of appreciation (bribe basically) and you will insure that you will be served quickly and properly.

But this is about the coffee break.

Some countries (Sweden) have it as a “social institution” or as a “tradition” – they call it “fika” and are 100% convinced it’s a Swedish thing. Little do they know that the Latin folk in Europe (Italy, France, Romania, Portugal, Spain) take more coffee breaks, and even longer. It’s unheard-of basically to dink coffee on the go in those countries. Coffee there is not a drink, it’s a thing you just do. Less than 30 minutes for a coffee without sitting down in a coffee shop or at home, over a chat, and you’re doing something wrong.

So, where did this coffee break culture came from?

Well, during the second half of the last century, coffee was loosing its appeal fast. Coffee was started to be seen as something only the poor do, or the unhealthy, just as smoking has started to be seen today, which is gaining more and more traction.

It was only consumed for its side effects, not really for its social aspect. The coffee producing countries of South America and the U.S pushed nearly 2-3$ every year into marketing and advertising just to keep coffee afloat. That’s when a sociologist intervened. His name was John Watson, and he quickly picked up on some things.

He noticed how during WW2 factories started giving their employees short breaks, which were used by the employees to quickly grab a cup of coffee to wake themselves up. He figured that marketing coffee as a break, and not a beverage, would be a good starting point. And so he did, started advertising how wonderful ideas and things come up during coffee breaks, and how coffee gives you breaks. Imagine that. Coffee is the one that gives you a break, not your employer.

Just stop here and think about it for a minute. Think about it.

It makes absolutely no sense. At most jobs you can be happily drinking plenty of coffee while working. There’s nothing stopping you in doing that. Plus, why would you need to drink coffee during the lunch break. Why not tea, or water, or the thousands of other possible drinks? Because YOU DO NOT QUESTION TRADITION.

The most important thing that Watson did was change people’s idea about a break, to call it a coffee break instead. That’s it. That was all that was needed. From that point on, once you call it a coffee break, society will make sure to crucify you if you consume anything but coffee during a coffee break. You’re screwing it up, you’re messing around with tradition.

To quote Karl from the article about coffee: “By the end of the first year, 80 percent of businesses were giving their employees a short break, and they didn’t call it a “cola break” or a “candy bar break” or a “sit quietly and stare at the kitten calendar in your cubicle” break. No, it was a goddamned “coffee break,” thanks to one of the most ingenious marketing moves in history.”

So there you have it. How we got addicted to coffee thanks to one sociologist who promoted his drink as a break, and not just as a regular drink.