The Food Industry Impact of Chipotle's "Scarecrow" Ad

By Graham Kates  |  September 17, 2013

Last week the best food commercial in years was released. It didn't mention the name of the company it advertises and it is unlikely to appear on television.

But Chipotle's "The Scarecrow" ad and its accompanying iPad/iPhone game are a big budget shot at major fast food brands and traditional television advertising in general. The three-minute video depicts a scarecrow as he goes about his day, working as a maintenance man behind the scenes at an industrial farm.

Set to an eerie cover of “Pure Imagination” (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), sung by Fiona Apple, the viewer sees the scarecrow reveal the secrets of the factory where he works. Unlike the magical land of candy discovered by children in Wonka, the scarecrow is horrified by the bloated chickens and conveyor belt cows he sees tucked away from public view and (spoiler alert) decides to make his own product using fresh ingredients.

The message is not particularly subtle: McDonald’s and company don’t want you to know how poorly the animals used in their products are treated, but Chipotle’s an open book.

Chipotle has managed to fuel its long-term growth with almost no advertising on television. Instead, it favors occasional online releases of short film-style animations that - while making almost no mention of the brand itself - push it as the non-factory alternative to big fast food.

Last year’s iteration, “Back to the Start” - a stop-action short which featured Willie Nelson covering the Coldplay song “The Scientist” - took viewers on one farmer's journey from running a small farm to a huge industrial operation and back again. It ran only briefly on living room screens, instead relying on viral word-of-mouth and the occasional movie theater screen. The commercial won the Cannes Film Festival’s first ever Grand Prix for branded content.

This year, “The Scarecrow” has caused a similar stir. In its first six days on YouTube, it has racked up over five million views, and the company has more non-traditional attacks on big fast food coming.

Earlier this year, Chipotle announced a four episode TV show-length comedy miniseries called Farmed and Dangerous, about “a group of likeable but misguided people whose job it is to spin the negative aspects of industrial farming in a positive way,” according to Mark Crumpacker, the company’s chief marketing officer.

It’s a campaign meant to elevate the brand above its bigger, less animal-friendly, competitors. But as Chipotle further intertwines its corporate image with the promise of a moral high ground, it has to expect scrutiny from its customers, who will demand that it lives up to that promise.

That may be a lesson already-learned for Chipotle, which for years drew criticism for declining to join the Fair Food Program, for which companies commit to purchase tomatoes grown only on farms with a minimum wage and basic working conditions. The sight of farm workers picketing Chipotle’s headquarters and Union Square location last year, advertising the fact that fast food behemoths McDonald’s and Taco Bell had joined the program years prior, was a major source of embarrassment for the company.

Chipotle quelled the commotion by signing on, but the protests were a reminder to the company that its corporate practices are under a microscope of its own artful crafting.