Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Reading Empathy, Hypocrisy, and Hope? in Chipotle’s The Scarecrow

Image credit: Chipotle 

What do Chipotle’s animated ads tell us about contemporary food discourse, animal rights, and Chipotle itself?

In 2013, Chipotle released the short animated film “The Scarecrow,” a follow-up to the 2011 film “Back to the Start.” The film follows an industrial farm worker-scarecrow as he views the horrors of the contemporary food system and then decides to break off and start a farm-to-fork stand. It features a haunting rendition by Fiona Apple of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory song “Pure Imagination.” Both films have had excessive views online and Chipotle also released a game to accompany “The Scarecrow.” The films suggest that Chipotle is aware of the ills of the industrial, factory-farmed food system, and sets itself apart from this system, although how it does so is not entirely clear.

Several of my Rhetoric of Eating students wrote analyses of this film last year, and I often use it as an example when teaching emotional appeals. In one scene the scarecrow, who works for “Crow Foods Incorporated,” watches a chicken injected with a chemical substance immediately grow fat. In another, a cow with suffering eyes gazes out from a constricting cage. The film suggests that we should empathize with these inhumanely farmed creatures. Both of the animals are viewed by gazing between cracks in a wall covered with food advertising, implying that peeking just beneath the surface of the food system reveals animal torture and chemically enhanced food. The scarecrow’s job appears to be to plaster these cracks over with more advertisements, thereby obstructing access to these sights. Moments like these in the film point to a growing social awareness of the harmful and inhumane practices of our food system—and the attempts to hide them. They also stress Chipotle’s awareness of these practices, implying that the chain knows the meaning of factory-farmed food. Yet like the scarecrow in the initial scenes, Chipotle may also be somewhat complacent in the face of these facts.

a friendly looking scarecrow with an industrial and polluted city as a backdrop

Image credit: Chipotle 

At the end of “The Scarecrow,” the main character has rejected his role with “Crow Foods” and begins growing vegetables at his home. He brings these vegetables into the city and sells freshly cooked food to its inhabitants. “Cultivate a Better World” is the final tagline. Where the meat comes from at the stand, though, is unclear. [The film therefore also enables a classroom discussion of logical fallacies.] Chipotle does not offer an image of the “natural raised” meat production they supposedly in “The Scarecrow.” Yet, implicitly, this stand is the first Chipotle, and we all know that a majority of orders at the chain’s establishments involve a large amount of meat. The video attempts to sell these meat diseases through a visual representation of local vegetable production. Would offering visuals of meat production undermine the film end’s cheerful aesthetic? Can its inspiring tone still work if the viewer notices this flaw? And, finally, does Chipotle avoid this imagery because its meat sourcing is a sticky and complicated matter, in which it cannot claim industry leadership? 

If anything, Chipotle claims to be trying to source safer, more humane food. They have an informative tab on their website called “Food with Integrity”: “Food with integrity is our commitment to finding the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals the environment and the farmers.”  This notion of respect along the food industry chain is new to American fast food. Chipotle says they source “organic and local produce when practical.” What might “practical” may mean within their profit scale? Such terminology suggests the privileging of corporate practices over social justice stances (which can rarely be monetarily practical). In other words, can corporate practicality and morality ever fit neatly together?

a chipotle sign that says responsibly raised

Image credit: Chipotle 

Chipotle uses the term “naturally raised” when discussing its meat sourcing, a term it defines as “raised in a humane way, fed a vegetarian diet, and allowed to display their natural tendencies.” This sounds a lot better than your average factory farming, but as critics have pointed out, it doesn’t mean that animals don’t spend their lives in cages or aren’t mass-produced, nor does it mean that the meat isn’t filled with grain, antibiotics, and hormones. Chipotle also notes on their website that they sometimes cannot source naturally raised meat and will notify customers of this change (and I’ve seen such signs up in an Austin Chipotle). This effort to identify alternatives to the worst factory farming and be transparent to customers is a needed move, but it doesn’t critique the overconsumption of meat in the US, or the resulting environmental and health crises.

Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communication director, has said that the company never “professed to being perfect,” but is “committed to constant improvement.” It is heartening to see such a large chain change the conversation about food sourcing (or perhaps represent a changed conversation about food in the US) and give it at least an aesthetic morality through these videos. Professing to try to do better is certainly better than remaining silent or suggesting that certain animals suffer less, that factory farming chickens is better than cows (Chick Fil A has done). Hopefully Chipotle’s actual sourcing will soon reflect truly sustainable practices that can rewrite the damaging food system. McDonalds changes the way potatoes are produced in whole nations and is one of the central causes for the sped-up, less safe, meat factory-farmed system, so perhaps Chipotle can influence the system for the better.  

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