Watch the video above. It doesn't look like a commercial. And that's kind of the point. This is the beginning of Chipotle's new promotional campaign, built around the character of the Scarecrow — and the Mexican-themed restaurant chain is playing the long game.
For the video, which is technically to promote Chipotle's free iOS game of the same name, the company enlisted singer Fiona Apple, the Oscar-winning animators at Moonbot Studios, and the Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley song "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 cult classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The subject matter is quite chilling, but the video is beautiful.
In case the plot isn't obvious — it wasn't to me on first viewing — Chipotle provides a helpful synopsis:
In a dystopian fantasy world, all food production is controlled by fictional industrial giant Crow Foods. Scarecrows have been displaced from their traditional role of protecting food, and are now servants to the crows and their evil plans to dominate the food system. Dreaming of something better, a lone scarecrow sets out to provide an alternative to the unsustainable processed food from the factory. [Chipotle]
It sounds like something PETA might produce if it had the money. But while there's plenty of cute-but-revolting factory-farm imagery and heart-tugging animal cruelty in the video, there's very little of one thing: The world "Chipotle."
Here's the business bit: "We're trying to educate people about where their food comes from," Chipotle chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker tells USA Today. And, not coincidentally, the company is also trying to win over millennials, the coveted twenty-something cohort that Crumpacker says is "skeptical of brands that perpetuate themselves."
The Scarecrow video will be followed up by four TV show–length Farmed and Dangerous short movies sometime next year. The whole campaign fits beautifully with Chipotle's core marketing strategy, says Slate's Matthew Yglesias. The company hardly ever advertises on TV, so "when a video does come out, it's high-quality high-impact stuff that really gets attention and is designed to be memorable."
Still, Chipotle is playing sort of a dangerous game here. Along with targeting branding-averse millennials, The Scarecrow is a pretty obvious play for the slow-food and farm-to-table crowd that still occasionally likes fast-ish food — and won't ever stoop to patronizing Chipotle's one-time majority owner, McDonald's. But it relies on people believing that Chipotle really is different than the Big Food dystopia it depicts.
Chipotle is, after all, a large company with more than 1,400 restaurants in four countries. It is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. And next time I find myself in line at Chipotle, or any other restaurant, I'll certainly be thinking about that sad cow (at the 1:37 mark) staring up forlornly at the Scarecrow. That Portlandia sketch about restaurant patrons asking for the detailed pedigree of their chicken dinner seems slightly less ridiculous.
Whatever your views on mass-production agriculture, though, I think we can all agree that Fiona Apple has a better singing voice than the magnificent Gene Wilder: