Chipotle’s ‘Farmed and Dangerous’: Entertainment or Marketing Propaganda?

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Chipotle’s creation and sponsorship of a new online TV series could change how you eat—and maybe also how you perceive marketing and advertising.

Chipotle, the burrito-selling fast-casual restaurant pioneer, has an unusual approach to marketing. It doesn’t bother at all with TV advertising, the bread and butter strategy for most national restaurant chains when it comes to spreading the word and generating consumer interest. Instead, Chipotle focuses on odd, indirect, social-media-friendly marketing tactics. Rather than paying athletes or actors to endorse it in a traditional commercial, Chipotle has a long history of generating “stealth” celebrity endorsements: The company hands out special “free burrito daily” cards to influential, high-profile heroes like skateboarding legend Tony Hawk and Washington Nationals All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper. In exchange, Chipotle hopes that the celebs are seen enjoying Chipotle, and also Tweet, post Facebook messages, and/or mention in interviews how much they love Chipotle’s food, free or not. Typically, the superstars are happy to play along, and all it “costs” Chipotle for these endorsements is around $7 per day (the cost of one free burrito daily).

Last fall, Chipotle gave another kind of unorthodox marketing a try, with the release online of an animated short video called “The Scarecrow.” The video, which featured a song by Fiona Apple and focuses on why consumers should reject factory farming in favor of more sustainable practices, was celebrated for its creativity and artistry, but also criticized as self-serving and misleading. In any event, the video went viral, and served as another example of how a marketing team can reach the masses without resorting to old-fashioned advertising.

Now, this week, Chipotle is entering a new realm of marketing, with this week’s introduction of a new four-episode online series. The show, called “Farmed and Dangerous” and available for free on Hulu, is a satirical look at factory farms, Big Agriculture, and processed foods. In a not-remotely-subtle way, the show is also a direct endorsement of the Chipotle way of doing things. The first episode aired on Monday, and subsequent shows will be released one at a time over the next three weeks.

(MORE: Yes, Chipotle Has a Show—And So Will a Lot of Your Favorite Brands)

The series stars an actor many Americans will recognize (Ray Wise, who has been in shows such as “24,” “Mad Men,” and “Twin Peaks”), and the production value is high. In pure entertainment terms, it’s clever, smart and funny—or at least it is compared to the majority of dumbed-down mediocre programming out there today.

But it’s not the entertainment aspect of the show that’s generating the most attention; it’s the idea that Chipotle is experimenting with long-format content that isn’t advertising but hopefully winds up being even more effective than advertising. “It’s not a show about Chipotle, but rather integrates the values that are at the heart of our business,” Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing and development officer at Chipotle and an executive producer of the show, explained in a statement. “The more people know about how food is raised, the more likely they will be to choose food made from better ingredients—like the food we serve at Chipotle.”

At its worst, this kind of programming could come across as a simplistic, one-sided, unwelcomed lecture, potentially alienating American consumers. To avoid being perceived as hectoring and overly self-serving, the show mixes in viewer-pleasing snippets of exploding cows, eight-legged chickens, amusing dialogue, and cartoon-like bad guy executives while raising concerns about industrial agriculture and processed foods.

Chipotle must walk a fine line in order to not be lumped in with the “pabulum often churned out in ad-supported vehicles,” as Variety columnist Brian Lowry put it. The verdict thus far is that “Farmed and Dangerous” succeeds in terms of providing a few laughs and not coming across as the tiresome equivalent of a 22-minute commercial. Chipotle manages to spread its message more widely and effectively than it would by producing an earnest documentary on industry agriculture that no one would watch. Still, Lowry writes, “The marriage between advertisers and programming, in other words, remains an awkward one, even if their heart appears to be in the right place.”

(MORE: Stealth Celebrity Endorsement: No Money Changing Hands, Just Free Burritos)

As an in-depth analysis of “Farmed and Dangerous” from the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Weiss noted, Chipotle is hardly breaking new ground by sponsoring TV programming content. The advertiser-production partnership dates back to some of TV’s earliest shows, such as “Kraft Television Theatre” and “The Colgate Comedy Hour.”

Chipotle’s slogan is “Food with Integrity,” yet the criticism of “Farmed and Dangerous” is that the show—crafted with the express purpose of helping Chipotle sell more food—is lacking in artistic integrity. “I wonder if it won’t make more viewers feel, well, a little icky,” Weiss wrote of the new show, which is listed at Hulu not as advertising but in the “comedy” genre. “There’s something disturbing about a corporation hijacking our attention with twenty-two minutes of entertainment specifically engineered to make us want to buy something.”