Commodity Compassion and Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow” Viral Ad

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September 21, 2013 by Lori Gruen

pure-manipulation-hed-2013So much has already been written about the beautiful, dystopian advertisement that Chipotle put out last week.  In case you haven’t seen it — an ineffectual scarecrow goes to work at Crow Foods and dejectedly wanders through an automated factory where workers, consumers, other animals, and the environment are cogs in the food production/consumption machine.  The scenes with the animals are particularly disturbing but the whole 3-minute animation (with Fiona Apple’s “Pure Imagination” as the soundtrack) is also visually stunning.

In social media, some animal advocates were thrilled by the poignant way the ad portrayed how animals are forced to suffer in factory farms.  The hope is that this ad will help change the way people think of animals who become their food.  And maybe there is something to that.  One pundit wrote:  “How are you supposed to eat any chicken again?chipotle-scarecrow I know that Chipotle’s point is that they are conscientious, but “conscientious,” short of a chicken who hands you the knife herself with a hand-written note saying that she has achieved all her life goals, found peace, and is looking forward to rejoining her family, still doesn’t cut it after animation this cute. In fact, even that scenario is incredibly depressing. This is like Bambi, except that it’s somehow an ad for a restaurant where Bambi’s mother is on the menu.…”

Some foodies and environmentalists find it a brilliant denunciation of BIG AG and applaud the plug for DIY healthy, locally grown food at the end of the ad, even while they are aware that Chipotle is not quite that.

ChipotleMany commentators are worried about the hypocrisy — after all Chipotle is a big corporation (not as big as some) that serves animal products (steak, chicken, cheese, sour cream), some of which are “conventionally” produced.  They also employ 37,000 people and though the average hourly crew member wage is higher than at Wendy’s, it comes to about $8.60/hour.

The funniest, most cynical response is the parody of the “world of pure manipulation” here.

I’m not sure this ad is really more manipulative than any other ad, but what strikes me is that it plays into something that is already circulating in the culture – commodity compassion.  We buy things to show how much we care.  We even carry around canvas bags to put the things we buy in that advertise our compassion.  Some people will buy Chipotle meals as a stand in for their desire to resist big agribusiness. On the weekends, they may go to the farmer’s market, buy “humanely” raised animal products, and carry them home in their ethically sourced, compassion tote bag.  This is the sort of economy in which ads like The Scarecrow work, but in a culture of consumption-as-affect it is far from clear that commodity compassion will animate real change.

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