Chipotle continues to confuse fantasy and reality

Feb 21, 2014

— Burrito company creates $1 million comedy show attacking agriculture

It is no surprise that Chipotle seeks to turn back the clock in terms of animal agriculture—one of their first viral commercials was titled, “Back to the Start”—but now it seems the burrito company wants to turn back the clock on advertising, too.

In its most recent media stunt, the company has created an internet “comedy show” that blurs the line between advertising and entertainment, reminiscent of when soap operas actually tried to sell soap and entire Saturday morning cartoon series were tailored around selling lines of toys to kids. Instead of selling burritos, however, the series seeks to sell the company’s ideas about modern agriculture.

Calling it “an original comedy series,” Chipotle released the first episode of “Farmed and Dangerous,” a four-episode online show playing on the online media sites Hulu, Hulu Plus, as well as on Chipotle’s dedicated site for the show. The company describes the show as exploring “the outrageously twisted and utterly unsustainable world of industrial agriculture.”

“Our goal in making the show was to engage people through entertainment and make them more curious about their food and where it comes from,” said Mark Crumpacker, Chief Marketing and Development Officer at Chipotle and an executive producer of the show in the company’s announcement of the show.

“It’s not a show about Chipotle, but rather integrates the values that are at the heart of our business. The more people know about how food is raised, the more likely they will be to choose food made from better ingredients—like the food we serve at Chipotle.”

The plot thickens

That “exploration” of “industrial agriculture” and stated desire to engage their audience apparently necessitates a highly fanciful setting. Though “Farmed and Dangerous” is not the visual level of fantasy seen in Chipotle’s previous online efforts at alternative marketing—computer-animated shorts “Back to the Start” and the more recent “Scarecrow”—it has a decidedly over-the-top spin on the real world. The bad guys are clearly defined; all they’re missing is a dark moustache to twist and a reason to say, “I’m here for the rent” to drive home their stereotypic villainy.

The episode begins with the meeting of the two primary antagonists on a dark and stormy day. Buck Marshall—CEO of the ag-focused public relations firm “Industrial Food Image Bureau,” or IFIB for short— and Mick Mitcherson, CEO of Animoil, “America’s largest provider of feed and feedlike substances,” discuss a revolutionary new feed Animoil has created: PetroPellet.

The feed substance is touted as being nutritious feed replacement for live stock, which will greatly reduce animal agriculture’s dependence on oil by cutting out the need for feed grains. The only downside is that cattle—and presumably any other livestock—that eat it sometimes explode.

As the two characters discuss how to spin the product to the public, a Holstein dairy cow that had been chowing down on a bowl of the feed in the lab explodes. Unbeknownst to the villains, the lab had been wired with a recording device by activist Chip Randal and the video of the exploding cow goes viral the next day.

Throughout the episode, numerous unsubtle means are used to cast the antagonist characters in their respective roles. Main and supporting characters within the Animoil and IFIB companies are depicted as corrupt, amoral and in a few cases inept or stupid. Examples include: IFIB board members openly discussing Buck’s infidelity to his wife and comments that would elicit sexual harassment charges in the real world; one Animoil employee making direct threats of violence against Chip; several characters within IFIB and Animoil not catching on to word-play jokes made at their expense; and not knowing how to accomplish their jobs.

The two “good guy” characters—Chip and his unnamed secretary at the “Sustainable Family Farming Association”—by contrast are depicted as clever, tech-savvy altruists just trying to make the world better for the little guy. They make frequent play-on-words or sarcastic jokes that go over the heads of the antagonist characters.

The first episode is one of four created so far. Reportedly, more episodes will be made if the first “season” is successful. The second episode “airs” today, with subsequent episodes coming out on the next two Mondays.

Blurring the lines of reality and fantasy

While the show is ostensibly set in the real world despite its fanciful nature, the “infrastructure” created around the show can cause some confusion about where advertising and entertainment end, and reality begins.

For example, at least when playing on its titular website, the first episode of “Farmed and Dangerous” runs alongside some commercials with a familiar face. Ray Wise, who plays Buck, appears in a pair of commercial break advertisements as his character. In the first planted commercial, Wise-as-Buck actually blasts Chipotle and its “hippy propaganda.” In doing so, he represents in exaggerated tones the voice of Chipotle’s critics in a form of message “immunization.”

In academic communication studies, inoculation theory follows its medical analogy; audiences are exposed to a weakened version of a message the communicator hopes they will later reject. This is usually effective. Having the overly-exaggerated denunciation of the program’s message presented by the villain character is a good example of trying to immunize the audience to the later criticism.

Another example of the blurred lines between reality and fantasy created by Chipotle to support the show is its creation of a full and professional-looking website for the fictional Animoil company. Though the text on the website is in places excessive to silly levels—one page for example accuses “eco-terrorists” and “industrial spies” of damaging that portion of the website—it has been designed to look and function realistically.

The Animoil website has all the trappings of an actual company website, including a press center with fictional press releases, letters to known journalistic entities, a career board, and security terms. It touts the benefits of its product, PetroPellet, and offers some infographics and data (all fictional) to back up its claims.

Though some sources have claimed the website contains disclaimers regarding its fictional nature or mentions of its attachment to Chipotle, WLJ was unable to find such information on the site after considerable exploration.

All-inclusive advertainment

As with the predecessors to “Farmed and Dangerous,” the show is not just a standalone product. As with the short animation, “Scarecrow,” released by Chipotle back in September 2013, the planted “commercials” that run during the episode solicit viewers to participate in a texting trivia game through which they can earn coupons and free food.

Both marketing efforts are part of a new and growing form of advertisement called “engagement marketing.” As the name suggests, advertisements pointedly try to engage the viewers as marketing research has shown consumers are many times more likely to remember and possibly return to a brand if they’ve interacted with it.

“Farmed and Dangerous” is a product of Chipotle and New York-based advertising firm Piro. Piro describes itself as a storytelling group that creates “branded entertainment” for companies, and makes a point of differentiating advertisement from storytelling.

“A branded entertainment idea must be inspired by the brand,” explains the Piro website. “But just as importantly, the story must be entertaining. Piro creates entertainment ideas based on a brand’s need, then supervises, co-writes and produces the work.”

The four-episode Chipotle series reportedly came with a $1 million production cost, though it is unclear if that price tag was just for the four episodes or if it also covered the attending infrastructure of the websites, promotion and planted commercials that ran with the show.

It has been noted by the ranks of agricultural bloggers that there is a level of irony involved in a burrito company creating a $1 million internet show, given that Chipotle describes “Farmed and Dangerous” as satirizing “the lengths to which corporate agribusiness and its image-makers go to create a positive image of industrial agriculture.”

“With such a production budget and a marketing team that knows how to sell to emotions of the consuming audience, Chipotle continues to win over fans with information and portrayals that are much less than accurate of our modern food growers,” noted Ryan Goodman of Agriculture Proud— a group Goodman began to help ranchers tell their story—in his opinion piece that ran last week on Eatocracy, a food-centered extension of CNN.



“If Chipotle is so adamant about getting us to learn more about where our food comes from, why spend millions on animations and comedies? Why not talk to actual farmers and ranchers who are on the ground and know more about growing food than marketing executives?” — Kerry Halladay,  WLJ Editor