Are 'Skinny' Drinks Offensive?

Starbucks's new ad campaign draws mixed reactions.

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Shortly after Starbucks launched its new women-centric "skinny latte" advertising campaign in January, the blogosphere erupted in criticism—and some praise.

Much of the controversy focuses on the use of the term skinny to describe the fat- and sugar-free drink. SassySexyShapely questions whether people should be offended by the word. As reported by Starbucks Gossip, one barista refused to use the term, calling it politically incorrect. Starbucks Sweetie, on the other hand, thinks the drink will help people make more healthful choices, and Mama Mia rejoices in the taste and low-calorie content.

Starbucks, which recently reinstated Howard Schultz as chief executive and announced it was slowing store growth as it refocuses the brand, says the word skinny is simply an easy way to describe nonfat and sugar-free drinks. "Consumers have become familiar with the term skinny as referring to food and beverage items that are typically lower in calories and fat," says spokeswoman Alisa Martinez. She adds that while many of the ads feature women, they are not targeted toward the gender but rather focus on the idea of taking better care of oneself.

Jim Romenesko, author of the Starbucks Gossip blog, says he's not surprised to see the company focusing on women in the ads. "What I see in my daily visits to a variety of Starbucks stores is men ordering simple brewed coffee, while the women tend to order the 'fancier' drinks—the ones that have hundreds of calories. Their market research probably shows that, too, and that's why they're going after women in the 'skinny' campaign," he says.

Lipsticking blogger Yvonne DiVita says she wishes the company targeted women more openly and directly, as other companies have done. "It would be much better if they respected us enough to blog and interact with us. Then, we could share our reactions openly, and they could get free [market research]."

But Toby Bloomberg of Diva Marketing says the ads work for her and that she's likely to buy the skinny latte, which has only 90 calories in the tall size. "My initial impression of the ad was...that it was in reaction to the talk that Starbucks has been contributing to American obesity," she says.

The radio and newspaper spots, which have launched in about a dozen cities, feature real customers talking about how they enjoy rewarding themselves with skinny lattes. "My drink's my thought provoker. I have to have it to think," intones Jessica, the protagonist of one radio ad, who says she drinks three a day. In a print spot, Jenna Wellman goes on an early-morning jog and rewards herself with the drink three days a week.

• Vote on your opinion of the ad campaign here.