Chipotle's "The Scarecrow". A Moving Call for Change That May Do More Harm Than Good
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Have you seen the Chipotle Grill animated video “The Scarecrow”? More than four million people have, since it was first published last week. It’s a cry against unsustainable industrial food production, and a plea for simpler ‘natural’ ways. It’s appealing, but The Scarecrow is also dangerous. It feeds a naively false black-and-white dichotomy between an idealized unspoiled past and the evils of modern technological progress. View the video, then come back for a review of its over-the-top “Don’t You Wish We Could Go Back to The Good Old Natural Days Before Evil Modern Industry and Factory Farms Ruined Everything” message. (Or if you don’t want to do the viewing right now, read on.)
The oversimplified dichotomy is unrelenting from the first sequence, which opens on classic images of an idyllic farm with a small red barn and white picket fence amid green rolling fields lined with healthy vibrant crops. The colors of the idealized simple world quickly pale, though, as the shot zooms out to reveal that the image is just a painting on the side of a looming food factory owned by Crow Industries. Our hero, The Scarecrow, is wonderfully humanized with a plaintive sad face as he looks at the sign. Beside him is the antagonist, a black crow that is actually a robot-drone with red radioactive glowing eyes, the avatar of the evil BIG FOOD company, who pecks and squawks at The Scarecrow to get him to go to work in the food factory. (Get it? The crows who ravage the crops are in charge of the food supply in the factory farm age, not the traditional protective scarecrow like back in the benevolent old family farm days.)
Inside, the factory is ominously dark. Machines extrude streams of unrecognizable mush onto assembly lines where guillotine-like blades chop slabs that go into packages labeled “100% beef-ish”. Scarecrow workers with resigned slumped shoulders, including our hero, are carried passively along to their jobs on conveyor belts. All of this is overseen by the evil crow-drone and robot overlords and their evil red glowing eyes. It’s a dystopic scene that would make the producers of 1984, that classic Apple computer ad, proud.
Outside again the Scarecrow sees another Crow Industries sign promising “All Natural”. But the planks of wood spelling ‘natural’ are cracked (subtle this film is not). The Scarecrow goes to repair the word ‘natural’ (repair ‘natural’…get it?) but peeks behind the sign to see a chicken inside the factory being injected by robots – with radioactive red glowing eyes - to fatten it up. Later, as our hero repairs a massive metallic cow structure, he peeks inside and sees a live cow, trapped and quivering inside a metal box, with big wide eyes that practically beg “SAVE ME!”. Glumly, the Scarecrow finishes his repair work, shutting out the ray-of-hope sun falling on the cow inside. Darkness falls across the face of the sad doomed cow. The black crow-drone squawks its approval at the sad Scarecrow, almost mocking him as just another complicit dupe working for and under the control of the evil Big Food Industry.
Underneath all this, in a sad minor key, Fiona Apple has been singing a plaintive remake of “Pure Imagination” (from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”). “If you want to see Paradise, simply look around, and view it,” the song goes. But the landscape The Scarecrow rides through on his train ride home is anything but Paradise. Ravaged bare fields are being picked at by massive robotic Crow-bots, with crow drones flying above. Amidst this desolation, a Crow Industries billboard features a picture of a happy scarecrow amidst a pile of fresh crops and the line “Feeding the World”.
The Scarecrow’s home, the farm we saw in the opening shot, is a Paradise Lost as well. The red barn is falling down. The white picket fence is broken. The rolling hills are not green and lush with crops but brown and dusty and decimated, like the battle-ravaged hills you see in war movies. But then the Scarecrow sees a bright red pepper hanging on a vine (a visual homage to Chipotle Grill, whose logo includes a red pepper.) The colors become bright and strong and fresh. The music changes to a positive major key. Our hero smiles. There is hope!
He happily plants corn – by hand, of course – and chops fresh food in his kitchen. He drives his old pick-up truck to the city and lovingly places a basket of fresh produce and steaming warm bread on a little farm stand. The evil drone robo-crow tries to peck at the fresh food, this threat to industrial civilization, but the smiling Scarecrow, now his own man, no longer under the control of the wealthy corporate One Percent Big Food Industry, shoos him away. A young boy smiles at the Scarecrow’s healthy offering, and Apple sings in a bright major key…“Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it!”
And on that hopeful but impossibly simplistic note, the film draws to a close…as the shot of The Scarecrow’s local, natural food farm stand pulls back to reveal the interactive game versions of the video you can get for your iPad or smart phone (with the thumbs-up “Like This” icon flashing almost subliminally through one shot). And it finishes with the logo of Chipotle Grill, the multi-billion dollar fast food corporation that professes to support more responsible food production – and there is good evidence that they are sincere about this – but which simply would not exist without the modern agricultural practices, and indeed the modern economy, that the film rails against.
OK, The Scarecrow is propaganda. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, and it makes its case brilliantly: a case, by the way, that has plenty of merit. Current industrial agriculture is not sustainable, cows and chickens and pigs live pretty miserable lives on their way to our plates, and Big Business does have to much control over our lives and is selfishly making a mess of the planet we share. We should want to change all those things. But this childish black-and-white paean to simpler earlier natural ways, and utter vilification of “big” or “industrial” or “human-made”, is cartoonishly naïve. And it’s dangerous.
It reinforces the emotionally appealing but simplistic dichotomy that old and simple and natural are good and therefore modern and complex and human-made are inherently bad. That fuels opposition to genetically modified food, which offers real promise to help feed the world in the face of both rising population and changing climate conditions. (Want to see what sparks people to rip up field trials of Golden Rice? Just watch The Scarecrow.) It contributes to resistance to all sorts of cleaner types of energy; natural gas, solar farms, wind farms, even nuclear power, each of which may pose lesser threats to our natural world but which can help moderate the huge threat of climate change. The false dichotomy of the film and its dystopian imagery of modern life feeds a rejection of technology and progress generally, with all the benefits they promise, including solutions to some really big problems.
The Scarecrow is a brilliant piece of marketing. Its main goal is to get us to spend money at Chipotle Grill, by appealing to the concerns of the sort of customers Chipotle is after. Unfortunately, by appealing to and reinforcing simplistic stereotypes, it may do more harm than good in actually achieving solutions to the concerns Chipotle claims to ask us to care about.
(This essay originally ran on Scientific American.)
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