An Urban's Rural View

What Happens When Scarecrow Meets Chubby Chipotle

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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When Chipotle Mexican Grill aired its YouTube video "The Scarecrow" two years ago, Forbes magazine summarized the company's strategy in a headline: "Chipotle Scarecrow Makes Enemies to Win Customers."

The burrito chain markets itself as holier-than-other-restaurants, but with a twist. It doesn't stop at promising "Food With Integrity." It also bashes the conventional agriculture on which most of its competitors rely. "The Scarecrow" was just the most powerful in a continuing series of Chipotle attack videos.

Conventional farmers and restaurants quite naturally take umbrage, but they aren't the only ones. Chipotle has made enemies across the food-debate spectrum.

At one end are those who jeer at Chipotle for preaching purity while peddling plumpness. "Eat two 'all natural' Chipotle burritos a week and you could gain 40 pounds in a year," blares an anti-Chipotle attack ad (…).

At the other end are those who disdain Chipotle for not being pure enough. The "G-M-Over It" campaign Chipotle launched earlier this year, for example, has triggered a false-advertising lawsuit (…).

Yet whatever its enemies think, customers keep pouring through the doors. Over the last five quarters the chain's net income has surged 27% (…). Its stock commands a price-earnings ratio in the 40s, more than twice that of McDonald's. And no wonder: Chipotle, one analyst notes, is opening new stores, increasing per-store sales and raising prices (…).

As Forbes' headline suggests, making enemies while winning customers is not just the inevitable result of Chipotle's "cause marketing." It's the intention. By attacking, Chipotle strives to convince food activists that the company shares their values.

In theory, Chipotle could make its case with these potential customers by simply stating its commitment to "sustainably" raised, "natural" ingredients. The company has apparently decided it's far more effective to condemn conventional agriculture in the same breath.

That's what Chipotle did in "The Scarecrow (…)," which features artful animation, memorable music (Fiona Apple covering "Pure Imagination" from the movie "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory") and a strong anti-industrial-agriculture message. It has been viewed 15 million times.

"The Scarecrow" is, without question, a masterful propaganda piece. The crows who run Crow Foods Incorporated are deliciously evil villains. The scarecrows, pressed into service as the crows' laborers, look on sad-faced as automated assembly lines whirr and chickens are vaccinated.

Crow's billboards celebrate "All Natural" ingredients and "Feeding the World." But the lead Scarecrow sees the reality behind these claims: a soulless food factory that betrays no trace of anything natural. "What you see will defy explanation," the singer sings, as the scarecrows watch cows being milked by a machine from hell.

Scarecrow rebels. He starts growing his own vegetables, making burritos and selling them from a roadside stand. The singer croons her final line: "Want to change the world? There's nothing to it." Scarecrow shoos away a squawking crow. Fade to Chipotle's logo.

Next to this social-media slickness, the "gain 40 pounds a year" anti-Chipotle attack ad seems primitive. No music, no animation, indeed only one visual -- a still photograph of a grinning, shirtless boy with the triple tummy of a sumo wrestler. A paragraph of text attacks the company for marketing "sustainability" while selling food that "will probably make you fat." But for all of its crudity, the ad lands blows.

Clearly Chipotle has gotten under someone's skin. But whose? I'm not a fan of Chipotle's food. I find the portions daunting, the burritos too heavy. That predisposes me to take seriously the ad's complaint about excessive calories. But I'd like to know more about the group making the complaint, the Center for Consumer Freedom. It says its supporters include restaurants and food companies, but it won't name them (…).

I have less patience for the attack on Chipotle in the false-advertising lawsuit. I was put off by the company's GMO-free claim; Chipotle is pandering, in my view, to uniformed fears along the lines of, "It doesn't sound like something I'd want to eat." But the claim didn't mislead me. Yes, it was titled "G-M-Over It," but anyone who read past the headline knew the beverages and meat still contained genetically engineered ingredients.

And yet it's hard to feel sorry for Chipotle in all this. The attacks on the burrito chain may not have been 100% fair, but then the chain's attacks on conventional agriculture have hardly been a model of fairness. Chipotle may believe all the negative things its attack videos say about big ag, but the Center for Consumer Freedom, whoever is behind it, undoubtedly believes its blasts at big calorie counts.

Would it be rude to point out that in both cases beliefs coincide happily with economic self-interest?

Alas, many makers of "organic" and "natural" food have decided to follow Chipotle's lead and promote themselves by attacking others. As I pointed out in my post on the "New MacDonald" video (…), all organic marketing is comparative marketing, but there's a difference between self-promotion and attack. There's also a difference between legitimate criticism and misrepresentation.

To date, the attack marketing has mostly come from Chipotle's end of the spectrum. The Chubby Chipotle ad is one of the first from the other end. It will be interesting to see whether it's the last.

Urban Lehner



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Bonnie Dukowitz
9/14/2015 | 9:05 PM CDT
The scarecrow should not poop on the pickles.
9/14/2015 | 8:21 AM CDT
In the U.S. ,at least in the demographics that Chipotle targets, food is not about nutrition. It is more like marketing perfume than drab nutrition. And we only have to look at the state of up coming political debates to realize what sells. Don Halcomb