Chipotle Goes Long on Long-Form Propaganda

If you didn’t catch the four-part, 87-minute Chipotle miniseries on hulu.com, I can save you some time…
Farmed Dangerous
Thoughts after watching the first episode (2/17/14)…

Chipotle debuted the first episode of its four-part “Farmed and Dangerous” miniseries on Hulu today, building on the success of its viral videos “Back the Start” and “Scarecrow.” While those two animated videos portrayed straightforward hero journeys, the new series is a satirical sendup of an exaggerated dystopian present.
Trying to elevate marketing to a form of beneficent propaganda, Chipotle hopes “Farmed and Dangerous” will also elevate the debate about sustainable farming practices (and sell more burritos, obviously). The first show introduces the premise that big oil and big farming are in cahoots, shoving new industrial farming methods down our throats (pun intended), while trying to keep down resurgent sustainable farmers.
A New Yorker article puts the campaign into historical perspective, citing several precedents, even as early as 1947 and the “Kraft Television Hour.” And anyone interested in whether movies or TV can actually move the needle might want to read a recent study called “Moving Pictures? Experimental Evidence of Cinematic Influence on Political Attitudes,” co-authored by Todd Adkins and Jeremiah Castle of the University of Notre Dame. Slate.com expanded on the study’s thesis, explaining how at least seven movies have actually changed the beliefs or views of moviegoers through before and after surveys.
“Farmed and Dangerous” may succeed in showing how dystopian our current industrial farming is only if it continues to surprise viewers with levels of satire and irony. The first episode took its time laying out the premise, which is not all that revolutionary in and of itself, but it will need to continue to surprise to really drive the message home.
The success of a film like The Matrix, on top of all of its many levels of meaning and craft, benefits partly from the ingenious plot construction that keeps first-time viewers in the dark and leads to bigger and deeper surprises. The first big surprise comes a full 30% into the movie, where the entire premise of the movie is first revealed, and what seemed real in the opening scenes was only a construct of a dystopian future.
So much has been written about Apple’s 1984 Macintosh commercial that I would do well not to claim a blinding new insight here. However clever it is, it is not merely the cleverness and its metaphorical message that it contains that might have changed people’s perspective. Its profundity lies in the premise that computer users were already well into a dystopian future that they had scant hope of escaping—until, ironically, 1984 came and with it, the Macintosh.

Thoughts after watching fourth and final episode (3/10/14):

The fourth and final episode of the Chipotle-produced miniseries “Farmed and Dangerous” posted on Hulu.com this morning. It’s a lot to ask an audience to wait for punch lines of satirical jokes drawn out over four weeks an hour-and-a-half of buildup.
While some are worth the payoff, some maybe fall a little short. But if you only watch the final episode, you probably get the premise, the moral landscape, and the punch lines.
The extra time did give the producers time to be pedantic and point out all the bad ways Big Oil, Big Ag, and Big Industry are corrupting our society. And PR, for that matter. In the final episode, the villain Buck Marshall quips: “McDonald’s doesn’t own Chipotle, that’s just a rumor I started.” (Fact checker: McDonald’s was a major investor from 1998 to 2006.)
The fill-in time supplies propaganda (the word is not only negative) about the main sustainability topics of the day, from the negative effects of GMOs to the true costs of food products on retail shelves. The drama hinges on the female lead, Sophia, having a conscience and choosing sustainable farming over her father’s PR firm promoting Animoil, the offspring of the marriage between Big Ag and Big Oil.
Chipotle is trying to springboard off the success of its viral videos “Back the Start” and “Scarecrow.” A New Yorker article last month puts the campaign into historical perspective, citing several precedents, even as early as 1947 and the “Kraft Television Hour.”
Plot twists are few once the premise is set, but there are a couple of choice-cut ones at the end that are worth a chuckle. Whether the new form has legs is reliant on the density of the information, the level of the subversiveness, and, of course, whether it’s actually entertaining. This experiment erred on length, discussion, and detail to appeal to very wide audience. It was a long way to go, but not as long as the journey back to more sustainable farming practices.
The producers tipped their hand for a joke, making the point that all media is, after all, propaganda, when one flack suggests: “What if we produce a satire that pulls back the curtain on the disturbing world of sustainable farming?” Satirizing the satirists is an even trickier proposition, but the proposition hits close to home.


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