Chipotle doesn’t make commercials. At least, not the 30-second kind. The popular burrito chain is instead launching a new online comedy series about the agriculture industry on Hulu. The show, which is being paid for by Chipotle but will be promoted similarly to other programs on Hulu, is one of the most ambitious steps so far in the evolution of product-oriented brands into media companies that create entertainment as well as ads.
Farmed and Dangerous, which premieres on Hulu on Feb. 17, focuses on a fictional industrial agriculture company that devises a money-saving scheme to feed cows petroleum-based animal pellets. Lots of hijinks with exploding cattle and a nefarious PR spokesman ensue. The show exposes issues in the agriculture industry that Chipotle has publicly denounced, such as dependence on fossil fuels and overuse of antibiotics on animals. But instead of hearing about these points from the restaurant directly, viewers will learn about them by laughing at Twin Peaks star Ray Wise and a wide cast of other characters.
“The idea here is that if people put really even a little bit more thought into where their food comes from, it’s going to benefit Chipotle,” says Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s chief marketing officer. “It’s a longer term play for customers.”
Chipotle has already shown a skill for online video. Two short animated films about sustainable farming featuring songs by Willie Nelson and Fiona Apple have generated about 20 million views on YouTube. The success of these shorts emboldened Chipotle to launch a full-fledged online show, which the company began conceptualizing more than two years ago.
The show was filmed by the production studio Piro, but Chipotle played a direct role in its development, adding characters and altering lines of dialogue. References to the fast food chain are even more scant in Farmed and Dangerous than they are in the YouTube videos. The word “Chipotle” is uttered only once in the show’s four-episode season. Neither the opening nor closing credits mention that Chipotle produced the show, though the episodes will be hosted on a Chipotle-branded Hulu account. The show will be promoted like any other Hulu program, sitting next to content from broadcast networks.
(MORE: The One Killer Feature Netflix Is Missing)
This is not advertising, exactly, but it’s not regular video programming either. Daniel Rosenberg, a partner at Piro, calls it “strategic entertainment.” The goal, he says, is “adding value to people’s lives rather than interrupting it with traditional advertising.”
Another phrase for it is native advertising, sponsored content which is not framed as a direct sales pitch but is still aiming to promote a specific company’s agenda or worldview. In an age when consumers are skipping television commercials with DVR devices and hardly even noticing banner ads online, these more subtle marketing approaches are gaining traction with companies looking to deliver a brand message to a receptive audience.
“I could produce an award winning ad for a restaurant. You wouldn’t be affected by the ad. You’d go to Yelp,” explains Neal Burns, a professor of advertising at the University of Texas. The Chipotle show, on the other hand, may enhance brand affinity by promoting the company’s beliefs rather than the company’s name. “It’s appropriate for our times,” Burns says. “It’s going to help establish a sense of fondness and [that] eating there is the right thing for me to do.”
Other businesses that view themselves as progressive are developing shows with a marketing bent. Last week Whole Foods Market launched a reality program on Pivot, a cable channel aimed at Millennials. The show, called Dark Rye, aims to tell true stories about food sustainability, creativity and social responsibility—concepts tied directly into Whole Foods’ general marketing messages. “Whole Foods Market is more than just a grocery store, it’s becoming a lifestyle brand—and we provide information through channels like Dark Rye to help shoppers make more informed choices and decisions,” Scott Simons, Whole Foods senior global marketing coordinator, said in an email.
(MORE: Meet the Cabal That Wants to Terminate Your Cable Box)
This might seem like a brave new world for marketing, but it actually hearkens back to the way TV was produced in its infancy. In the 1950s Ovaltine sponsored kids’ shows like Captain Midnight and cross-promoted them with their dairy products. The entire genre of soap operas was actually a marketing ploy by consumer products companies like Procter & Gamble, which wrote and produced dramatic TV programming in order to advertise their wares (hence the name “soap” opera).
“In the early days, the brands did everything other than own the networks,” says Edward Boches, a professor of advertising at Boston University. “In an odd way, this is a kind of return to that.”
If the content is enjoyable, Boches says people won’t mind that Chipotle made it. Because the company is guided by clearly stated business principles regarding sustainable farming, people may even react positively to a show that reinforces those ideals.
Meanwhile, other marketers will be watching closely to see whether consumers really want to see corporations cooking up entertainment content as well as food. “The program will be judged on the quality,” Boches says. “If it’s really great, people will say, ‘Wow, how cool is that?’ If it’s miserable, people’s reaction will be they should stay in the business of making burritos.”