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Ed Sullivan vs. Chipotle

Gather ‘round, Millennials, and learn of a time when the rock ‘n’ roll you hear everywhere today, from baseball games to doctors’ waiting rooms, was perceived as a dire social threat. Otherwise sane people were convinced the morals of American youth, if not the American way of life itself, were sure to be undermined by songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  And this wasn’t centuries ago.

Similar outrage and fear can be heard in reactions to the latest marketing message from Chipotle Mexican Grill, the chain that’s positioned itself as the Grateful Dead of quick service restaurants. It’s once again portraying the rest of the food world as a cross between Pat Boone and Cruella De Vil, this time in a video posted on YouTube.

The cartoon wordlessly tells the story of a scarecrow who discovers he’s working in a food factory right out of Henry Ford’s Detroit. The plant is mass-producing non-descript matter in such unnatural ways as injecting chickens to make them plumper, and crowding beef cattle into dark, miserable rooms where they can’t even move.

The food is ultimately packaged in boxes or wraps, stamped with a label, and distributed via pass-thru’s to consumers of all shapes, sizes and ages. The edibles could be any consumer hard good, not something you’d connect with a farm.
Dispirited by what he sees, the scarecrow heads home to the countryside, where he spots green plants that produce recognizable, fresh ingredients like a pepper. Some might call it a yet-to-be-smoked chipotle.

The scarecrow picks the pepper and other fresh ingredients and chops them into colorful, appealing dishes that he sells from a counter in the city. A banner drops down behind him: “Cultivate a Better World.” Only then do you learn the video is from Chipotle.

The spot is a companion piece to a new app-based game, downloadable for free, in which the scarecrow tries to prevent robotic crows from supplying the world with heavily processed food.

“Chipotle is on a mission to change the way the world thinks about and eats fast-food,” Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s CMO, declares in a companion YouTube post, “The Scarecrow – Behind the Scenes.”

Others view that mission a little differently.

“If Chipotle only had a brain…,” begins the response issued by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group backed by restaurant and food companies.

“The whole premise is that ‘big’ and ‘modern’ equals bad when it comes to food,” writes the CCF.  “Chipotle bashes ‘big,’ yet the gazillions of tortillas that the company goes through aren’t exactly made in some Mexican grandmother’s kitchen.”

“Apply Chipotle’s economic logic to other industries,” continues the statement. “Should we go back to the horse and buggy because there’s car exhaust?”

The objections came from parties small and large. Rancher Ryan Goodman wrote on his blog, “The message is not realistic nor does it paint an accurate image of modern agriculture.”

Says Facebook poster Sheri Hessler: “Stop supporting global hunger. Not everyone can afford to eat your overpriced burritos.”

They should consider how much enthusiasm was packed into the outpouring of positive responses to the scarecrow video.  Clearly Chipotle has connected with a large and growing segment of the population, far beyond anything you could label as a fringe.

The accuracy, merit and potential hypocrisy of the chain’s contentions about the nation’s food supply aren’t the issues of importance to restaurateurs. Rather, it’s the indisputable fact that Americans want less processed, more wholesome foods.  The video is just one more bit of evidence. Walk into a Whole Foods and you get the same impression. The same conclusion is unavoidable when you shop at Trader Joe’s, or have lunch at a Jason’s Deli or start a Saturday at the nearest farmers market.

That’s why McDonald’s ran billboards in Washington state, pointing out how much of what it serves is locally grown. Or why Darden Restaurants, the parent of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, is featuring organic produce on its new menu for Seasons 52.

So when a reader complains that we used the term “pink slime” instead of the less inflammatory “LFT beef,” we want to grab a megaphone and yell, “Wake up!” Objectors can’t avert the wholesale shift in American preferences by denying it’s happening anymore than Ed Sullivan could neutralize the rebellious music of the Rolling Stones by making them change the words on his show to “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”

Chipotle might be out in front, but it’s part of a movement. Attacking it isn’t going to make it go away. That’s just bad business.

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