The burrito purveyors of Chipotle made waves (and won serious awards) in 2012 upon launching "Back to the Start", a beautifully rendered but harshly pointed missive at the unethical practices of Big Agriculture. The two-minute film stood out among the competition in its quick service category, and struck a cultural nerve. For an aware audience concerned about the provenance of food—and the adulterated state of much of it—the fact that a national Mexican food chain was espousing ethical food sourcing in 2012 was promising. Now, the company has released a visually delightful and narratively rich follow-up film, along with an interactive game, that continues to educate viewers about how food is mass-produced.
We have become firm believers in the value of entertainment as a way to educate.
"Scarecrow" is the story of one such stuffed field guardian, now forced to work his days at Crow Foods, an industrial farming operation under the control of robotic crows. Steeped in symbolism, the film paints a dystopian portrait where chickens are plumped full of hormones, cows are contained in steel boxes and "100% Beef-ish" meat is sent to market. Set to Fiona Apple’s haunting cover of "Pure Imagination," a song made famous in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, is a little bleak until the scarecrow takes matters into his own hands and returns to work his small farm.
"We have become firm believers in the value of entertainment as a way to educate," says Chipotle Communications Director Chris Arnold. "With the ‘Scarecrow’ we wanted to educate people about some of the issues associated with big ag and industrial food processing. We are on a mission to change the way people think about and eat fast food, and part of that is our commitment to finding better, more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients we use, and our ongoing commitment to classic cooking."
As a follow-up to its earlier effort, "The Scarecrow" nicely matches the tone and messaging of "Back to the Start." But this installment adds a layer of engagement with its interactive game component. Created by Moonbot Studios (famous for The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, and animators of the film, as well), the iOS game neatly incorporates information and gameplay as levels involve liberating whole foods from factory settings, sustainable farming, and bringing good food to market.
"With the game...you create a better world."
Arnold says the addition of the game was to allow for continual interaction with the work. "The idea is for the film to introduce the story and the characters, and the game allows people to have ongoing engagement. With the game, the farther through it you get, the more beautiful the scarecrow's world gets—it gets more colorful, the music gets richer and so on. So you can just dabble and things stay much the same as they are, but if you go through more and un-do the wrongs perpetrated by Crow Foods, you create a better world."
For Chipotle, this investment in entertainment has served them well. But Arnold says the goal of this work isn’t necessarily sales. "In many ways, "Back to the Start" was more of a political victory than a commercial victory. Through programs like "Back to the Start" or the "Scarecrow," we aren't necessarily looking to boost sales; we are looking to educate people about important issues in food. In the long-term, we believe that the more people understand about issues in food, the more they will want to make better decisions," he says, of course noting those decisions include "choosing restaurants like Chipotle."
While "Scarecrow" ends on a positive, back-to-roots vibe that’s seen in farmer’s markets across the continent, one wonders, do moves like Chipotle’s towards sourcing sustainable products have an impact? Arnold says things are getting better, but that change comes slowly.
"We are changing the way people think about and eat fast food..."
"When we started on this path more than a dozen years ago, things like local and organic foods were very niche, but they are becoming more and more mainstream. That's really encouraging. And while we have challenges finding the kinds of ingredients we want (we need a lot of everything; we have 1,500 restaurants and serve 800,000 people a day), there is definitely a bigger supply (our growth is just a challenge to the system)," he says.
"Ultimately, the more people understand about issues in food, the more they are going to want to make better choices. We are changing the way people think about and eat fast food, and that is not a change that's going to come quickly or easily."