Commentary: Scary Movie

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A world of controversy is swirling around the high-profile Chipotle video “Scarecrow,” which is (ostensibly) a promotion for the restaurant chain’s new iPad/iPhone/iPod game—now available at an App Store near you.

The three minute, 23 second YouTube animation features spectacular production values, as it documents the initially sad, yet ultimately triumphant sojourn of a homely scarecrow into a nightmarish world of Big Ag and Big Food. The promo features a long, stylishly created sequence that pays homage to both Charlie Chaplin’s legendary 1936 film “Modern Times,” with its mechanized, soul-crushing scenes of a mega-factory where people are (literally) mere cogs in giant gears, and Apple’s groundbreaking 1984 Super Bowl ad for Macintosh, where a single female athlete smashes the theater-sized Big Brother image holding hundreds of automaton-like workers in thrall.

Created by Moonbot Studios and the Creative Artists Agency, Scarecrow is visually arresting, beautifully animated and backed with a striking soundtrack that juxtaposes a female torch singer’s haunting lament with imagery of “Crow Industries” and its industrialized food processing systems, captive livestock locked away in dark enclosures and none-too-subtle savaging of corporate sloganeering, such as “Farm Fresh,” “All Natural” and “Feeding the World.”

It’s brilliantly done, flawlessly executed and as the soundtrack rhapsodizes, it takes viewers into “a world of pure imagination.”

Unfortunately, those who are involved in the world of livestock production, the people who actually raise food animals, have reacted quite negatively to the entire Scarecrow concept. On one hand, I can’t blame them. Taken straight up, the message Chipotle is sending is that food production must be re-invented, that we all should try to “cultivate a better world,” as a hit-you-over-the-head visual at the end of the video phrases it, by not patronizing the corporate titans that comprise Agriculture-Industrial Complex.

(Like Chiptole, I presume, since the company’s annual revenues of $3.1 billion from more than 800 stores qualify it as a full-fledged member of “Big Food.”)

On the other hand, the Scarecrow video, like all advertising, is best evaluated as art form first, and reality check later.

Chipotle, to be clear, has long positioned itself as a socially responsible, eco-conscious restaurateur that sources its ingredients from organic growers, “humane” producers and family farmer-growers. Its overtly advertised point of difference is that, “Whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones.” And their in-store menu boasts that their food is healthier, responsibly sourced and environmentally friendly.

The Scarecrow message that “industrial” livestock and food production is undesirable is nothing new, nor is Chipotle the only restaurant chain touting natural foods, GMO-free ingredients and organically sourced produce as superior to conventional foodservice fare.

Discount’s in our DNA

Truth is, our food production systems are mechanized; they do operate on an industrial scale. These days, though, what product isn’t mechanized, standardized, homogenized? Mass production is the fundamental trade-off underpinning our post-modern, techno-rich, convenience-driven 21st century lifestyles. Virtually everything we might ever consider purchasing is the product of industrial systems where efficiencies of scale bequeath savings upon shoppers.

We’ve all been weaned on “cheap” food, clothing, electronics—pretty much everything for sale in the superstores to which we’ve pledged out allegiance—to the point that we consider it part of our birthright: life, liberty and the pursuit of shop-for-less.

But here’s the problem. Far too many people—especially impressionable young people—will watch Scarecrow and conclude that forking over six bucks for a Burrito Bowl at their friendly neighborhood Chipotle is not only a tasty way to do lunch but a relatively cheap (there’s that word again) contribution to a cleaner, greener, more sustainable planet.

Such sentiments, of course, are beyond fanciful. We’d all have to make far more radical changes to our lifestyles choices than where we decide to purchase some get-it-and-go fast-food entrée to effect the sort of transformation implied in the Scarecrow video’s homespun wisdom about local foods and small-scale agriculture. (The video shows Scarecrow driving a 1950s vintage pick-up filled with wooden crates of veggies to market to the enlightened masses—the three or four families that would pretty much wipe out all he has to sell, that is).

Look, there definitely are positive reasons to patronize restaurants such as Chipotle that at least attempt to diversify their purchasing so small-scale farmers and producers have a market for their products. That’s a good thing.

And although the company has consistently attempted to take more credit than deserved for floating the idea, collectively we’ll all need to accept certain modifications to the conveniences we’ve come to demand if we’re ever to approach a truly sustainable society.

The best-case scenario is that people watch Chipotle’s video, enjoy the artistry that went into its creation and appreciate the Scarecrow app for what it is: An enjoyable little diversion that bears about as much relationship to reality as its central character does to the real deal on duty in cornfields across the heartland.

›› To watch the Scarecrow video, log onto www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUtnas5ScSE.

›› To watch a “rebuttal” video, “Honest Scarecrow,” log onto www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKvnRMNlGcM.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Michael    
kansas  |  September, 30, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Perjury, and suborning perjury, is what this is. The image they present is demonstrably false, despite the weak link to ag as having become a large business that's incorporated - because that's what all businesses do when they grow. And they're encouraging others to testify to the falsehoods presented. And see no reason to give them any kind of break for their cuteness, cleverness or "creativity" unless we all agree that lying is O.K., as long as it's clever and serves to sell more food for a Billion Dollar, Big Corporate Food company? The FCC used to enforce this law called, Truth in Advertising, that was designed to prevent gullible, low-information consumers from being scammed and film-flamed by Clever Creative Liars (aka, marketers). What happened to those Good Old Days?

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Washington  |  September, 30, 2013 at 06:30 PM

Kansas, while I empathize with your sentiments, there is a long distance between clever, manipulative advertising and suborning perjury. Light years. Although I, too, take offense to much of the content of "Scarecrow," if someone took the creators of this project to court their attempted lawsuit would get tossed in a heartbeat. For all the longing any of us might have for an FCC with real teeth that might crack down on messaging we don't like, there's a much stronger pillar of American democracy to consider: The First Amendment. Edgy, radical, or extreme marketing or advertising may be reprehensible, but it's not against the law. And I'm okay with that, because the alternative -- government censorship -- is way worse.


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