On October 11, editor and blogger Mike Pope tweeted this photo of an ad for an in-store Starbucks in a Seattle supermarket.
“YES, PSLEASE.” Photo by Sabrina
As the small print clarifies, the PSL in PSLEASE refers to Pumpkin Spice Latte, the nigh-ubiquitous autumn beverage, and not, say, to Process Specification Language, Personal Seat License, Philadelphia Sports Leagues, Phoenix Senior Living*, or the Romanian semiautomatic rifle.
Responses to the tweet fell into four categories:
1. Word aversion: a possibly disingenuous refusal to read PSLEASE as anything but P-SLEASE. (Oddly, no one mentioned PS-LEASE, which is equally plausible.) “Sleaziness” was a big turnoff to this group.
2. Linguistic curiosity. The terms epenthesis (the insertion of a sound or letter into a word) and phonotactics (the rules that govern the possible phoneme sequence in a language) were bandied about. The consonant cluster <PSL> isn’t permitted in English, so English speakers (and readers) tend to hesitate when we encounter it.
3. General eye-rolling, aka “marketing people be cray-cray.” “I hate it thanks,” from the Vocal Fries podcasters, summarized this response.
A special shout-out to Rewordsmith for this punctuation observation:
The odd thing is that someone had the sense to insert the comma but lacked the sense to deny the "PSLEASE."— Hair-Dryered Bread (@rewordsmith) October 12, 2019
(This particular comma usage is covered in Chicago Manual of Style 16, 6:30: “A comma should follow an introductory yes, no, well, and the like, except in certain instances more likely to be encountered in informal prose or dialogue.”)
The YES, PSLEASE controversy has been brewing elsewhere as well. “Who at Starbucks thought this was catchy?” asked a crabby Redditor in September. Someone else captioned a photo of the ad “This awful wording from Starbucks.”
My two cents? I give it a B+. If I encountered the sign in the wild, I’d pause and read it a couple of times to be sure I got it right. That little pause is what advertisers dream of: a chance to interrupt a potential customer’s routine and make an impression. From that perspective, “PSLEASE” is a success.
A bit of background about Starbucks and PSL (or #LovePSL, as its Instagram fans style it).
Starbucks originated the beverage in 2003—test markets were Vancouver, BC, and Washington, DC—but has never filed for trademark protection of PSL or PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE, which is why you’ll find occurrences of both all over commerce-land: candles at Target, socks at J. Crew, enamel pins from Etsy, even a YES PSLEASE women’s T-shirt (sans comma) from Royal Blush Apparel.
This year Starbucks started serving PSL on August 27, its earliest launch date ever. Clearly, there’s a market for the stuff. But according to a Vox explainer published in August 2018, pumpkin spice latte “almost didn’t exist”:
As former Starbucks veteran Tim Kern told Quartz, “A number of us thought it was a beverage so dominated by a flavor other than coffee that it didn’t put Starbucks’ coffee in the best light.”
Fortunately for Starbucks, the Tim Kerns of the company were ultimately overruled, because within a decade of its launch in 2003, the PSL became its top-selling drink, with more than 200 million of them sold. In 2015, Forbes estimated the PSL brought in around $100 million in revenue over a single season.
As for the PSL initialism, Urban Dictionary’s earliest entry is dated November 14, 2013: “The most delicious treat of fall.” I took note of PSL in September 2014, when I quoted a grumpy William Germano, a contributor to the now-defunct Lingua Franca blog: “As an acronym, PSL would become pissl, or even pizzle, which just sounds rude. As an initialism, on the other hand, PSL feels clinical, as if it might be a medical condition.”
Some people have remained blissfully in the dark. Rob Meyerson—who works in branding!—admitted in the Mike Pope Twitter thread that did not recognize PSL as an established acronym. “Is referring to the drink by abbreviating to ‘PSL’ something they came up with or something their customers actually do?” he asked.
I suspect that Jaclyn (@jacy_the_editor) is more representative of those of us who have seen and smelled way too much PSL over the years, thank you very much.
I love it! PSL is kind of trite and overused, and this feels fresh and unexpected - but still gettable.— Jaclyn (@jacy_the_editor) October 12, 2019
* Phoenix Senior Living operates not in Phoenix, Arizona, but in the southeastern US, so I can only surmise that this phoenix is an allusion to “rising from the ashes,” a discomfiting association, in my opinion, for “senior living.”