Chipotle’s Scarecrow Part One: Lessons in Corporate Greed

Chipotle Scarecrow

– I try very hard to present a fair and balanced view of agriculture and the series of posts I have planned on this topic will not be an exception. I have written this particular post no less than ten different ways looking for the most positive spin possible. Sometimes, there just isn’t one. I’ve contemplated simply not posting, but this is too important a topic to remain silent. Fear marketing hurts farmers, consumers, and the future of our food supply. It’s something I simply cannot abide. Let’s go… —

I guess I’m something of an anomaly in the farm world; a pro-Agriculture advocate with a professed love of Chipotle Mexican Grill.* I’ve always erred on the side of light handedness with criticism of their questionable marketing campaigns and extended them a generous benefit of the doubt. When they infuriated other farmers with their Back to the Start campaign in 2011 I tried to appeal to everyone’s sensibilities with a call for better cooperation. When their corporate spokesman, Chris Arnold, erroneously announced plans to overhaul their policy on antibiotic use in beef animals, I wrote again about the opportunity for cooperation and defended them on Twitter.

Then again, this week, when they released their newest digital short, The Scarecrow, and its associated game by the same name, I tried to find common ground. I emailed Arnold directly, “I have just one question,” I wrote. “With Chipotle experiencing continued problems sourcing enough ingredients, what made the company think another marketing campaign that inaccurately depicts farmers was a good idea? Are you intentionally shooting yourself in the proverbial foot here, or does someone need to buy a new trigger lock over there?”

Arnold is the corporate equivalent of a politician so I fully expected him to double down on Chipotle’s messaging and bring the answer back around to one of the company’s talking points, but in past conversations he’s also struck me as a fairly nice guy who has a decent head on his shoulders. So while I was being cheeky I was also hoping he’d throw me a bone. And Arnold did throw me a lot of bones in our relatively short email exchange, but they weren’t the kind I’d hoped for. I went in looking for a little something that would allow me to continue to extend my “innocent until proven guilty” approach to the burrito behemoth. I came away with an all too vivid reminder that Chipotle’s number one priority is to sell burritos by whatever means necessary and knowing on no uncertain terms that they have no interest in having a two-sided discussion.

In four short emails, here’s what I learned:

Chipotle Thinks its Marketing Department is Qualified to Teach You About Agriculture.

Arnold’s first response was largely unrevealing, but one sentence peeled back the top on the can of worms he seems to have been using as an office chair. “We made this film… to teach people about issues in industrial agriculture,” he wrote back. And that right there was enough to pique my interest. I mean, a farmer emails you and asks you about inaccuracies in a digital short about agriculture and your first response is that you’re teaching people? There’s a logical disconnect somewhere under that surface scratch.

So I clarified, “Am I understanding right that Chipotle views The Scarecrow as an educational short?”

And he confirmed, “The point of The Scarecrow is to educate and entertain.”

Which is where it started to get interesting.

But They’re Not Worried About Accuracy.

I inquired a few times about accuracy, and with the exception of the first time when he ignored the accuracy issue altogether Arnold simply defended the misinformation the video contains in a number of ways. He argued the inaccuracies are irrelevant because The Scarecrow lives in a fictitious future world, that the short is metaphorical, and that consumers are “smart enough” to figure it out; while simultaneously insisting that because, “the underlying issues are real,” The Scarecrow’s gross exaggerations and blatantly false depictions aren’t inappropriate.

Which is Why They’re Counting on You to Not Fact Check Them.

“The audience for this is people who don’t pay much attention to these issues,” Arnold wrote. And later added: “It’s not our role to paint a picture of the food system as a whole; that’s what the associations are for.” Even though he’d said just a couple emails earlier that it was their intention to educate people.

Because, Apparently, Any Attention is Good Attention.

“Our communications focus on our priorities,” he said. And their priorities were made blatantly clear: create buzz. Any buzz. Even if it’s the bad kind. “Our “Back to the Start” film last year sparked tremendous dialog on issues in agriculture,” he wrote. “The one time we ran it on television… social media lit up with conversation. That’s the point.” Never mind that much of the “conversation” around that piece was criticism that apparently fell on deaf ears.

This isn’t the first time Arnold has been frank about Chipotle’s attention-seeking motives. When the company faked the hacking of their own Twitter account earlier this summer he gave Mashable a very similar excuse. “We thought that people would pay attention, that it would cut through people’s attention and make them talk, and it did that,” he was quoted as saying.

And They’re Really Not Interested In Ethics.

Unless it’s the sort of ethics they can neatly package into a digital short to sell you burritos, Chipotle is, apparently, not interested in taking the moral high road. When I pressed Arnold about whether or not Chipotle might consider a more ethical approach to marketing campaigns in the future he made it pretty clear that wouldn’t be happening any time soon.

“…wouldn’t it be a better company policy to just not lose any customers to shady marketing techniques?” I asked. And Arnold came back with a non-answer, but a telling one: “Our portrayals are doing exactly what they are intended to do,” he responded. And remember, at this point, what they are “intended to do” has become pretty obvious: “teach” people (who don’t know any better and have no frame of reference to realize they’re being misled) Chipotle’s skewed version of American agriculture in such an entertaining way they’ll be inclined to tell their friends and then take the whole clan out for “ethical” food marketed by (apparently) unethical people.

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Next: Chipotle’s The Scarecrow Part Two: A World of Pure Imagination, Indeed.

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Take the Survey: What Makes a Good Farmer?

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* Obviously, my love of Chipotle is no more. Which is a boat Arnold seemed to miss entirely as he was busy insisting “the industry” was not their target audience and therefore my reaction is irrelevant. My family is very much Chipotle’s target market, as are the folks I come into contact with every single day, and we have been frequent and loyal customers for a long time. Something that ended last week not solely because of The Scarecrow, but because of Arnold’s arrogance and unwillingness to have a discussion, rather than a lecture.

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Full email transcript.

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Agriculture Food Politics

{ 25 comments… add one }

  • Anna September 16, 2013, 10:29 pm

    Love your blog! You have such a great voice. It would be great to hear more about your thoughts on the video and what you found inaccurate. I know very little about farming and the food industry, so I would love to hear what you would have told Chipotle had they asked you to pre-view or consult on the video.

    Reply
    • Diana September 17, 2013, 6:22 am

      Hi Anna, thanks for commenting. That’s exactly the topic of the next post so stay tuned. I figured at 1100 words this one was pushing it on length. Hoping to get part two up today. :)

      Reply
  • Katie Pinke September 16, 2013, 11:28 pm

    Diana, first, I commend you and thank you. You have done your research and homework. The arrogance in the emails from Arnold bothers me. A lot. Who are the ag industry consultants? Not anyone I work with. Keep writing. I will be reading and sharing.

    Reply
    • Diana September 17, 2013, 6:21 am

      Katie – Thanks for stopping by and sharing this. I would like to know who they are, too. Of course Chris completely ignored my offer to consult. I suspect they are, if they exist at all, people who simply pat Chipotle on the head and tell them they’re doing the right thing. Seems pretty clear they’re not interested in alternate perspectives, which would be the entire point of hiring consultants of this nature: to provide balance. The arrogance was a huge issue for me, too. This is a company that relies even more directly on farmers than most, and they just straight up do not care. I would stop farming before I would sell one pound of meat to them.

      Reply
  • Annie @ mama dweeb September 17, 2013, 12:08 am

    thank you for this honest post! I saw it on Facebook (shared by Pinke Post) and appreciate every word.

    When I first watched this, I knew it was an overdramatized jumping on the “fake food vs real food” trend. It is incredibly trendy to be a cool kid that eats only organic, ethically sourced, Non GMO foods. Sadly, many companies like Chipotle might have good intentions – to sell healthy foods – but they also have dollar signs in their eyes.

    And what gets me, is that these “ethical real food lovers” (all the fans on social media) feel like they are supporting an ideology, a cause, when in fact they are supporting a company just as greedy as McDonalds for a profit.

    can you tell I’m fired up? LOL

    Reply
    • Diana September 17, 2013, 6:26 am

      I can tell and I love it! ;)

      The ethics really are the sticking point for me. People erroneously believe they are supporting an ethical company when they buy Chipotle food, because that’s how it’s marketed. They think if the company is sourcing this certain type of food they deem more ethical, they are doing everything more ethically and as we can see here that’s not the case. Worse, they’re being disingenuous intentionally.

      Reply
  • threecollie September 17, 2013, 6:40 am

    Very well said, the best I have read yet on this topic. What a shame that marketing has to stoop so very low to sell a product.

    Reply
  • Megan Sprague September 17, 2013, 8:48 am

    Diana,
    Thank you once again for a fair and unique assessment of a very frustrating topic. I work for Michigan Pork and manage their social media so I have definitely been watching this topic, and watching how different ag bloggers have responded. This is my favorite response yet, because you went to the source to better understand their motives. I always enjoy reading your blog, and look forward to the rest of the posts in this series.

    Reply
  • Annie McCullough September 17, 2013, 11:06 am

    Thanks Diana for this post. I hesitated sharing anything about this video until I got to your blog post. You reiterated my exact frustrations with this whole campaign. I had some conversations with Chipotle’s social media reps over on their Facebook page last week. I kept hearing ‘its about the processing, we are pro-farmer’ and ‘we didn’t mean to insult farmers, just factory farmers.’ Well, fact of the matter is, if a farmer like yourself was insulted along with so many other farmers of all shapes, sizes & production types, then Chipotle missed the mark.

    Reply
    • Mike September 17, 2013, 2:02 pm

      I won’t defend Chipotle’s choices in how they source their ingredients. The ad isn’t an attack on farmers at all – it’s a criticism of agribusiness. Many farmers aren’t reaping the prices they deserve because of the chokehold big food companies have on the ag marketplace. More efforts to work directly with farmers should be applauded, and even if Chipotle isn’t being entirely honest about how much they’re doing in that regard, it’s better than nothing.

      But there has been a common refrain among the social media backlash to the ad in the last few weeks. The idea that Chipotle “is a for profit organization whose goal is to make profit” shouldn’t be a point of criticism. Many of those same posters couldn’t praise another company enough for using family farm imagery for their own profit:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFnSGiM5H34

      Reply
      • Diana September 17, 2013, 2:22 pm

        I’m not taking issue with Chipotle’s choice to source their ingredients only from certain farms. Nor am I taking issue with them being “a for profit organization whose goal is to make a profit.” I’m believe heartily in capitalism. In fact, I take no issue with any business whose top priority is to make a profit so long as they make no bones about that priority. I’m taking issue with Chipotle parading as an ethical organization whose top priority is ethical food production and preparation when their top priority is, in fact, making a profit.

        The ad even by Chipotle’s own account (and regardless of which account you choose as they’ve given more than one) however, has nothing to do with how much farmers are making. It sounds like that’s something that’s important to you though, so I’m glad to discuss it anyway. Before we get to it though can you please tell me exactly what it is you think Chipotle has done “in that regard?” (Meaning, what they’ve done to increase farmers’ profit margins.) I’d like to be sure I’m addressing your real concerns.

        As for the Dodge ad you linked, yes, most farmers were quite pleased with it. Myself included. You’re overlooking a very important distinction between the two however, Chipotle’s depiction of “family farm imagery” is blatantly inaccurate and slanderous while Dodge’s is accurate and supportive.

        Reply
      • Annie McCullough September 17, 2013, 2:36 pm

        Mike, I truly believe the ad is an attack on farmers and agriculture in general, and clearly I’m not the only one, or there wouldn’t be such backlash. To show a dairy cow in a metal box (oh, and being milked on the SIDE of that box? I wasn’t aware a cow’s udder was on the side of her body?) what is that implying? I’m still trying to figure that one out. I’ve been on many, many farms during my schooling & career, and have never seen anything that looked quite like that. To a consumer who has 1 – no direct connection to a farmer, other than the food on their plate; and 2 – has never seen a farm of any size for themselves, this video is completely misrepresenting what it takes to get the food from farm to fork. Chipotle themselves admitted that they have videos celebrating farmers who provide to their sources. So instead of implying that anything they don’t use is bad, why don’t they take the Dodge, or Culver’s, etc. route and celebrate the people behind their products? I for one LOVED the Dodge Ram commercial, because it honored the 2% of people who work hard 24/7/365 to provide for the other 98%, and maybe gave that 98% a glimpse into what farmers do on a daily basis. This one? This implies a case of ‘this is better than that, or higher quality, or safer, etc.’ and that only serves to polarize the conversation & put distrust in the minds of consumers whose only exposure of food production comes through marketing & advertising. It is the manner of the messaging that we have a problem with, and the fact that Chipotle feels the need to resort to scare tactics to sell their product.

        Reply
        • Mike September 17, 2013, 5:44 pm

          Thanks for the discussion, Diana and Annie. This blog is a great forum for talking the issue out.

          My M.O. is the social and economic well being of family farmers, so that’s the angle I’m trying to take. The comment about “in that regard” refers to Chipotle’s previous marketing arrangement with a pork co-op in Missouri (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/05/03/a-chain-that-pigs-would-die-for.html). Granted, this was 5+ years ago, but it’s these types of direct sourcing methods that can be very helpful for farmers, especially in the pork production market, which is dominated by the processors.

          The ad is far from perfect. It portrayed the family farmer – who wants to provide consumers with the food they want – as stuck serving the interests of big agribusiness but is able to break through by going around the system. That’s a little rich, considering Chipotle’s size and previous ownership, but it certainly appeals to today’s consumers. I also agree that it’s not realistic, as I’ve not seen a sideways udder or a anthropomorphized scarecrow, for that matter.

          NPR ran a piece (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/09/17/221376803/american-farmers-say-they-feed-the-world-but-do-they) on Morning Edition today that cited a very interesting study from the Center for Food Integrity. One of the conclusions drawn was that “in focus groups, many people said that if feeding the world means more industrial-scale farming, they’re not comfortable with it.” I know of many farmers who of that same opinion, too, but I realize they’re not usually the people raising issue with this ad.

          The Dodge commercial made people feel good, and rightly so. But let’s not forget that there are some serious problems in agriculture today, oftentimes stemming from non-farmer interests trying to co-opt their message. Farmers need to work together with other farmers to find ways to meet that consumer demand, even if it is a little misplaced and not fully-informed. Direct-sourcing, even if Chipotle falls far short of what they advertise, is just one way to do that.

          Reply
      • Benjamin Edge April 1, 2014, 8:33 pm

        When you criticize agribusiness, you ARE criticizing farmers, because in this day and age, farmers have to be agribusinesses in order to survive. I guess it is okay for a for-profit business like Chipotle to use misleading ads to criticize another for-profit business as long as the other business is ‘Big Ag’? In reality, it is a cheap marketing ploy to gain market share without regards to the potential damage it might do to the food industry as a whole.

        Reply
  • Jodi September 17, 2013, 11:45 am

    Thanks Diana for writing about this. I’ve been following what several other bloggers (Dairy Carrie, and Ryan Goodman with Agriculture Proud) have been saying about this company and video. Love your spin on it as well. I think companies like Chipotle and Panera Bread will eventually shoot themselves in the foot or the light will dawn on many consumers that they are just big fraud’s/hypocrites and at some point backlash will be problematic.

    Farmers need to keep shouting about the hypocrisy of these companies from the rooftops. It’s not that I’m against organic or ABF meat or farms, I just think the companies that portray conventional farms as in the light that this video did should be called out for THEIR complete lack of ethics and “educational” ineptitude. The problem is the average consumer doesn’t get the nuances in farming practices, actual or perceived . So farmers and those in Ag need to keep doling out the correct information and not bash each other.

    Thanks again for the great response to this horribly inaccurate video.

    Reply
  • Kelly @ Country Nights, City Lights September 17, 2013, 2:47 pm

    Diana, this is why I have a blogger crush on you.

    This post is fantastic. It was one of the things that helped tip the scales for me to write my own post about the video — I wasn’t going to, but you inspired me. Thanks so much for being a level-headed, open-minded voice in a conversation that is often very divisive. Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  • Kirby Kennedy September 17, 2013, 5:04 pm

    Diana,
    This post is AMAZING. I don’t know how else to say it. As an agvocate who grew up on a hog farm in Texas, I feel a connection to you, your blog, and the issue at hand. When I watched the Scare Crow short for the first time, I was infuriated. Your approach and rebuttal to the topic was written in the most eloquent way and I appreciate your contribution to the production agriculture industry. A lot of times we, as agricultural advocates, only preach to the choir and don’t bother to educate those out there who are unaware of what really goes on in the industry. Thank you for your voice.

    Reply
  • Jess Schira September 18, 2013, 7:14 am

    Love this post :) I’m sharing it!

    Reply
  • Anita Stuever September 18, 2013, 6:23 pm

    Wonderful post. Thank you for taking the time to communicate with Chipotle. You asked all the right questions and kept the rep’s feet to the fire. I did something similar when HSUS used a fabricated “fact” in a news release.

    Reply
  • Steve Sando September 18, 2013, 8:04 pm

    I found it an insult to my intelligence. I kept hearing about how wonderful the music and animation were. I guess, but I wasn’t moved.
    Will Chipotle tackle GMOs next? Most of their products are GMO and the jury is still out on them.

    Reply
  • John Murphy September 19, 2013, 10:24 pm

    Diana,

    While I was thoroughly entertained by your critique of the video I think you were completely unfair in your characterization of your conversation with Chipotle. You dismissed nearly every point the gentleman made in retort to your comments. The most telling aspect was you completely dismissed all of the accuracy question. His response was an appropriate one, the video was a metaphor and obviously hyperbole of an agriculture complex that uses too many chemicals, hormones, and modifications on our current product. I wonder where the inaccuracy can be placed on a video that isn’t meant to dictate truth but to point out glaring inequities between our small farmers and industrialized farming corporations. It isn’t unethical to make a video that demonstrates the nuances of an argument that should be told in hyperbole for people to take notice and realize. In fact, I would love for you to point out where the inaccuracies lie? Excluding the obvious issue of an imagined world complete with mechanized birds, Do our chickens not get injected? Albeit not by robotic crows, but they are. Are cows not made stationary and allowed to move as little as possible? Again, not by mechanically controlled black caraels, but indeed they are in pins. Whether you agree with this type of farming for economic reasons or for the greatly mislead “hunger” reasons, hyperbole is meant too highlight issues with magnitude, not subtlety.

    Reply
    • Diana September 20, 2013, 7:11 am

      Actually, John, your response here is a slam dunk case-in-point as to why this video is such an issue. Because consumers do not have a frame of reference and cannot pick out what is exaggeration and what is not. No, chickens are not injected. No, dairy cattle are not “made stationary and allowed to move as little as possible.” It is not about whether or not I agree or disagree with “this type of farming,” because “this type of farming” does not exist.

      As a small farmer I would very much be interested in what “glaring inequities between our small farmers and industrialized farming corporations” you think The Scarecrow is meant to point out though.

      Reply
  • Kris September 23, 2013, 2:04 pm

    I liken this blog post to one similar I read about Coca Cola leading to diabetes problems in Polar bears. It’s a fictional short where ideas, events, and the overall layout is to be exasperated to make a mark on the conscience of the people. As a society, we are so immune to everyday marketing that companies have to find ways to not only get their point across, but to make it stick against the proverbial wall.
    As far as the farming ‘methods’ used in this short, if you took the average city dweller to a chicken(insert animal here) farm they would come back with a much more grizzly picture painted in their minds than what is depicted here. Having been raised on such farms, I have a fairly clear understanding that people simply have NO IDEA where their food comes from, and those that do, are always morally able to seek out the best alternatives so as not to contribute to the process of processed foods as such.
    I’ll take your blog more seriously when your livelyhood isn’t threatened by silly commercials intended to combat the perceived notion that what we put in our mouths is exactly what we think it is.

    Reply
    • Diana September 25, 2013, 12:55 pm

      Actually, Kris, since we’re in a growth phase with our farm business it has no bearing on my “livelyhood” (sic). If I quit farming tomorrow it would not affect my family’s standard of living. My only dog in this fight is one of a concern for accuracy and ethical marketing. In fact, to the untrained eye Chipotle’s commercial promotes my farm. So even if my “livelyhood” (sic) depended on it, on its face I stand to lose from criticizing The Scarecrow.

      Reply
  • Kris September 25, 2013, 4:54 pm

    Having known that, I would have left that out. Regardless, the majority of responses(to me) tend to pick apart the advertisement in miniscule porportions. Having people nitpick and split hairs only leads me to believe that the underlying issues are not with the accuracy at all. Lips moving and nothing of real substance coming out.

    Reply

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