Guest Post: The Controversy of the Chipotle Scarecrow Ad

Throughout the year, the BU Gastronomy blog will feature occasional posts from special guest writers including current students, recent alumni, professors, and more. The following Guest Post is brought to you by Gastronomy student Brad Jones.

When I first watched Chipotle’s new Scarecrow advertisement, the one currently going viral across the internet, I was ready to condemn it from the mountain tops. To summarize briefly, the advert follows an unnamed protagonist scarecrow through his workplace, the industrial giant Crow Foods. It is the scarecrow’s job to patch up the façade of the processing plant, ensuring that the unknowing patrons who are purchasing prepackaged 100% beefish meals and chicken-shaped nuggets at the end of the omnipresent (dis)assembly lines remain enthralled by its glossy veneer. It’s a good thing they do as inside the factory chickens are pumped full of chemical hormones ballooning to twice their size while in the next silo over a herd of forlorn cows are attached to pumping machines that resemble and probably function like an iron lung, ensuring just the bare minimum of what one might call life.

Dejected and dismayed, our protagonist commutes to his rural home, where he tends a small garden, the sight of which gives him an epiphany. He proceeds to harvest his bounty, drive into the city, and prepare it fresh for happy if inquisitive patrons amidst the looming walls of the industrial complex. Beneath a banner that reads “Cultivate a Better World,” he’s finally able to shake the omnipresent crow that has perched on his shoulder throughout. It’s seems a final act of defiance.

I watched the short film over and over again. I angrily picked apart the storyline, the symbolism, the music. I was going to go on a long diatribe about the marketing efforts of big business to influence our buying decisions, in this case all the more insidious because they are subliminal (except for the conspicuous red chile pepper that started a revolution that is). I was going to attack the fact that the company had for many years an unholy alliance with McDonalds making a fortune for McD’s to the tune of 1.2 billion dollars (the two have since parted ways). I was going to comment on the irony of using a haunting version of “Pure Imagination” to silhouette the action, not because it juxtaposes utopian allusions of Willy Wonka’s candyland with the dystopic images of factory food processing and fallow fields, but because that scene from the chocolate factory has always struck me as more indicative of gluttony, consumerism, and excess than the fantastic land of medieval cockaigne.

The list goes on. I was going to lambaste the company for intentionally rousing controversy and, whether bad or good, advertently splashing the Chipotle name across the internet (even as I was aware of my own complicity). I was going to note that while scarecrows are an apotropaic symbol of farm protection, their association with brainlessness may not be the image Chipotle wishes to convey. I was going to shake my head that such a touching story did little more than prelude the release of the company’s new juvenile “The Scarecrow” cellphone ap. I was going to all but throw a fit.

But before I did so I went to their website to gather ammunition and to see if Chipotle’s practices in any way resemble what they preach. I researched the history of the company, analyzed the way they prepare their food, and scrutinized their ingredients closely. All this was surprisingly easy to do and I was forced to admit I was pleased to find such a large measure of transparency. And then I realized that they do have some things to boast about: they do lead the world in buying (and selling) hormone and antibiotic-free beef, pork, and chicken; they do buy quite a few products locally; they do prepare things fresh on site; they do provide a relatively well-rounded meal nutritionally; they do employ real-live sentient human beings.

scarecrow screen

And then I started thinking, and realized if nothing else we must agree the advertisement has got us all doing a little more thinking. The popularity of the ad (amassing over 5 millions views in less than a week) and the abundance of articles written for or against it shows that we’re talking about our food again and that we’re doing it in a critical way. Are we in large numbers finally breaking free from our industrial sopor? Are we, like our protagonist scarecrow friend, refusing to be complicit in the shame of agro-industrial food production? Are we accepting the call to arms and proactively cultivating a better world? Are ads like this (and their 2009 Back to the Start version) encouraging us to do so? I’ll hesitantly admit that I think the answer is a resounding yes.

So while the advertisement still doesn’t sit entirely right with me, I realize it may very well be an agent for good. And while I’m not likely to eat any more fast food (pardon, fast casual) I realize that at least Chipotle is the lesser of evils and at most it has the power to be a significant arbiter of change. So go get em’ scarecrow… one (million) “all natural” pork tacos at a time.

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