During all 120 minutes of Chipotle‘s latest campaign, the Mexican food chain is mentioned just once. “Doesn’t McDonald’s own Chipotle?” someone asks. “No, that’s just a rumor I started,” answers Buck Marshall, of the fictional Industrial Food Image Bureau, an inside joke about the oft-cited, incorrect assertion that the fast-food burger and fries enterprise owns the burrito maker. (In fact, McDonald’s was just a one-time investor, and has since divested.) Other than that line, Chipotle and its products don’t make an appearance–to most viewers, this ad wouldn’t feel like advertising at all.
Farmed and Dangerous is Chipotle’s latest effort to promote its mission with entertainment that can stand on its own. After the success of its animated shorts Back to the Start and Scarecrow, the burrito-hawking restaurant chain has put out a bona fide television series: Four 30-minute episodes are slated to debut on Hulu on February 17. Despite coming straight from Chipotle’s marketing department, the series contains no product placement and very little branding. Although the hero is named Chip. (Groan.)
“It was really Chipotle’s mandate to make this entertaining,” says Tim Piper, the series’s director and a founding partner at Piro, the agency that produced the show. “Their intention from the beginning was to give their consumers a piece of entertainment instead of bragging about how good they are. It helped them keep on the right path and prevent this from becoming a typical over-branding piece of junk.”
While it’s unclear from the trailer how far the program will rise beyond “junk,” the production value seems high and the show has secured some big names. Twin Peaks fans will recognize the main character, Marshall, played by Ray Wise. The executive producer and cofounding partner at Piro, Daniel Rosenberg, has written television pilots and was an executive producer on Inside Man. The team also recruited Jeremy Pikser, who wrote Bulworth, as a screenwriter.
Nevertheless, the program still pushes a corporate agenda, even if it isn’t immediately apparent. Farmed and Dangerous satirizes industrial farming (as you can see in the trailer below), and it’s not the first time Chipotle has taken aim at sectors of the farming industry. In Chipotle’s Scarecrow ad, which features Fiona Apple singing “Pure Imagination” and has racked up over 11 million views, viewers learn about the dark side of food production through the eyes of an animated scarecrow. (“Can’t believe I’m commenting on a commercial, but this was awesome,” wrote one YouTube commenter.)
The new Hulu series espouses the same values. “We’re dedicated to raising awareness about alternatives to factory farming,” Chipotle writes on its “behind the scenes” page for the series.
The commitment to more sustainable farming via advertising not only associates the company with more savory (and PR-friendly!) practices, but could also lead to sales in the long term, as Chipotle’s chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker explained to Fast Company. “As people come to be more interested in where their food comes from, they will seek out better quality food,” he said. Unlike competitors, much of Chipotle’s supply includes antibiotic-free meat and local vegetables. The television show, in theory, will subtly convince consumers to choose Chipotle over, say, McDonald’s.
Critics, however, have pointed out ways in which the Scarecrow ad is disingenuous. Not all of Chipotle’s ingredients are GMO free, and the company’s definition of locally sourced food means the ingredients traveled up to 350 miles to reach their destination. Chipotle, for its part, doesn’t deny any of that. “Chipotle is not perfect, we can’t always get the ingredients,” Crumpacker says.
That may not entirely matter for the success of the ad, according to Justin Wilkes, president of Radical Media, which has produced commercials and branded content for companies ranging from Grey Goose to Jeep. If Chipotle’s show can stand on its own and people like it, then those feelings will extend to Chipotle. “The show has to be great, then the advertiser can leverage that,” Wilkes says. In other words, the bar for greatness is as high for Farmed and Dangerous as it is for non-branded programming like House of Cards or Mad Men (whose pilot Radical Media helped create).
Success would involve the show extending Chipotle’s values, even without explicit branding, to viewers. To help bolster that effort, Chipotle is offering a trivia sweepstakes for viewers.
But even if the show is amazing, won’t some viewers be offended to find out it’s meant to push a brand? “I think viewers are savvy enough to the fact that advertisers support television,” Wilkes says. This doesn’t differ too much from product placement or an entertaining stunt–a la Red Bull–argues Wilkes. “I don’t think it’s about pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. If it’s good, the audience is going to appreciate it.”
The danger, he says, is if people invest time and hate it. Unlike with a bad television show from a traditional media company, dissatisfied viewers will take it out on the brand. “If an advertiser puts a lot of muscle behind something and puts it out there and it’s a failure, they’re going to get slapped that much harder for it.”