“The Scarecrow,” a short animated video put out by Chipotle Mexican Grill, seems part Pixar, part Tim Burton, accompanied by a creepily melancholy version of the song “Pure Imagination” from the first Willy Wonka movie.
At first it appears that the “pure imagination” is us kidding ourselves that our food is made of, you know, food, or something that we would recognize as food. A “100% beef-ish” product is extruded from a factory into children’s lunches and the packages that shoppers put in their supermarket carts. “Natural” chicken is magically plumped up like a balloon through the dark art of an injection. A cow trembles in its hideously cramped crate.
All of this is witnessed by the scarecrow hero, a working drudge of Crow Foods Inc. who is constantly harassed by his nasty avian-robotic boss. Get it? The crows -- the destroyers of food -- are now in charge of it; and the scarecrows -- the protectors -- are now just so many little widgets used in its unnatural production. In the end, though, the scarecrow uses his own farm to cook up fresh ingredients in the kitchen and open a -- what do you know -- Mexican food stand. This devotion to whole foods has been brought about by his own “pure imagination” of a better way to feed the masses.
It’s an eye-catching little video meant to highlight Chipotle’s commitment to using far more in the way of sustainably grown ingredients than most fast-food chains do, or for that matter, most sit-down restaurants.
I’ve never been awed by Chipotle’s sledgehammer message about its organic cilantro, since that’s such a tiny proportion of each dish it serves up, but its commitment to buying chicken that has not been given antibiotics to promote growth or prevent infection is a big one. The overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is a serious contributor to the proliferation of resistant bacteria that threaten us all.
Chipotle says it buys locally sourced produce and, to the extent possible, grass-fed beef. And it holds to generally higher-than-average standards for humane treatment of animals, which generally means more living space, though no one should be fooled into thinking the chickens that end up in burritos grew up on Scarecrow’s idyllic old-timey farm. If the company is doing a little more image-burnishing than its actual practices might justify, it is in general working to be a better corporate citizen than average when it comes to sustainably and humanely produced foods.
The strange thing, then, is how ferociously some people have embraced -- and others have objected to -- this little video. It’s creative and charming, but the message of “The Scarecrow” is hardly new or complex or subtle. You’d think it was the movie version of “Fast Food Nation,” the groundbreaking book about what exactly is on our plates, the way pundits are reacting.
Anything that attracts this much love must, practically by definition, bring on the haters as well. “The Scarecrow” has been variously decried for implying nasty things about high-tech food production, without which, a couple of writers said, we could not feed the expanding population. This is generally the same group of people who say we have to engineer the hell out of plant and animal genes for that population. Genetically modified foods might be perfectly healthy for people, if not for the environment. But the question is, what happens when we use this technology and the population is still expanding? Wouldn’t it make more sense to bring down population growth on what is, after all, a finite planet?
At the other end of the spectrum, the organic/vegan crowd criticizes Chipotle for using genetically engineered products. The company says it is trying to move toward non-GMO foods but that this is difficult in a nation where almost all of the corn and soy has undergone some genetic tinkering. (The video, by the way, does not say or imply anything about genetic engineering, as near as I can tell.) The organic/vegan crowdy points out that Chipotle doesn’t generally serve organic food, beyond its famous cilantro, and says the video disingenuously doesn’t show the horror of animals being slaughtered -- even in a more humane environment.
Still others have slammed Chipotle for using the imperfect state of the industry to tout its products and get better sales. Sorry, but this is still supposed to be a profit-making company.
Maybe the real message is that we should take the video for what it is: a commercial corporate promotion that rises to a higher level of cleverness. We might need to get more serious about the weaknesses in our food production, but do we really need to get so dramatic about an animated marketing short?