|September 19, 2013|
Chipotle’s new promotional film The Scarecrow has culture and multimedia commentators salivating, while others debate the ethical standing of such an audacious leap onto the moral high ground.
No question, The Scarecrow is a gorgeous production. Created by Moonbot Studios, the elegantly integrated, highly produced music, visuals and metaphoric story are masterful, packing the intended emotional punch and subtle brand enhancement. Zagat announced that “Last week the best food commercial in years was released.” Slate’s headline simply read: You Want to Watch Chipotle’s Amazing “Scarecrow” Video. As someone typically more focused on visuals, I was struck by the stroke of genius in Fiona Apple’s ironic cover of Pure Imagination. I found myself wanting to rewatch to catch more of the rich animation. And yes, I wanted a burrito.
The film is a clear evolution from Chipotle’s previous film Back to the Start, with similar theme and elements, but much higher production value. Set to a thought-provoking cover of a well-known song, the protagonist gets caught up producing for “the man,” but eventually follows his conscience and does the right thing by his animals, the land and ultimately, consumers.
Chipotle’s message is clear, though its presentation stands in stark contrast to the literal approach of Coca-Cola’s TV spot released in January, targeting obesity and its critics on the issue. Coca-Cola’s soundtrack features a narrator saying “Today, we’d like to people to come together on something that concerns all of us: obesity” and concludes, “at Coca-Cola we know that when people come together, we can make a real difference.” The piece, Coming Together, features the company’s products frequently and includes many statistics about them.
Despite their differences, both The Scarecrow and Coming Together were effective at sparking discussion and some controversy. In an op-ed in The Atlantic and this blog, bioethicist Ruth Faden called Coming Together “unconscionable” and wrote:
If Coca-Cola really wants to help improve the public’s health it should dramatically alter its product line. Short of that, Coca-Cola could use its considerable advertising muscle to promote healthy exercise, yes, but when it does so as a ploy to confuse the public about the dangers of its products, that’s not a public service, that’s unethical.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was similarly critical; releasing a statement addressing Coming Together, saying the campaign is “just a damage control exercise, and not a meaningful contribution toward addressing obesity.”
Faden is the director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and is leading its new initiative on Global Food Ethics, which announced its ambitious endeavor — to devise an ethical framework to ensure the expected 9.5 billion global population have enough healthy food in 2050 — with the headline “Feeding the World Fairly,” a tagline similar to one that appears ironically on a billboard in The Scarecrow. ‘Fairly’ is the operative word, Faden says. “Feeding the world is only part of the challenge— we need to feed the world in an ethically responsible fashion, which means not just producing calories but producing food that will keep people healthy, while respecting the rights and interests of farmers, farm laborers, communities, animals and also protecting the environment.”
Faden adds, “It’s clear the phrase ‘feeding the world’ is used in The Scarecrow with two invidious intentions: to mock the contested claim by the American farm industry that their methods are feeding the world, and to imply that one mega company is indeed feeding the world the same overly processed, unhealthy food.”
Chipotle’s approach has its detractors, particularly among some strict vegetarians, who see more of an anti-meat than anti-industry message. I heard a usually mild-mannered religious vegetarian refer to the ad as “bullshit.” Scientific American’s David Ropeik calls The Scarecrow ‘dangerous’ and ‘over–the-top’:
It reinforces the emotionally appealing but simplistic dichotomy that old and simple and natural are good and therefore modern and complex and human-made are inherently bad. That fuels opposition to genetically modified food, which offers real promise to help feed the world in the face of both rising population and changing climate conditions… The false dichotomy of the film and its dystopian imagery of modern life feeds a rejection of technology and progress generally.
Comedy website Funny or Die posted its skewering of the film’s righteous stance:
A serious attempt to reveal hypocrisy on Chipotle’s part remains to be launched, though there have been whispers about treating chickens better than human workers. It seems logical that Chipotle would have its bases covered before stepping up on such a self-righteous pedestal, including its complete break with McDonald’s in 2006; while some argue that Chipotle is a major food corporation itself, it certainly is the equivalent of a lone scarecrow in comparison to the behemoth empire that is McDonald’s.
The real-life backstory only adds drama to Chipotle’s films. Huffington Post’s July 2013 interview with Chipotle founder Steve Ells certainly seems to foreshadow The Scarecrow:
Ells briefly manned the line at a McDonald’s in high school, and he said that working there left him uninspired. “It didn’t capture my imagination,” he recalled. “Think about the systems at McDonald’s,” he continued. “It’s a very mechanized world, where you take out a highly processed patty. This frozen puck.”
Scientific American’s Ropeik concedes that “The Scarecrow is propaganda. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, and it makes its case brilliantly.” As in Marshall McLuhan’s phrase that succinctly summed up modern media theory, “the medium is the message;” Chipotle made a deliberate choice not to go with a literal TV advertisement, but to create a game in which the world of the game improves as you play, and to promote that game online with a highly produced, emotional short film. Ultimately Chipotle gets its larger point across in the sophisticated way that good communication is meant to – the medium is the message, and their clear message is: from the promotional video to their product, they care enough to do it really well.
Leah Ramsay is the Science Writer at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.