— 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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* 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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