I defy you to be unaffected by the intro video to Chipotle’s new "Scarecrow" game for iOS. It was made by the incredible Moonbot Studios, Oscar winners for “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” and profiled in these pages when the company issued its “Numberlys” game. Our Scarecrow hero and game avatar works in the dystopian city of Plenty, where the nefarious Crow Foods has fully rationalized and industrialized food production. Chickens are hyped on chemistry, cows are caged and sorrowful. And Moonbot, a studio that has a real jones for Fritz Lang and his creepy Metropolis, overlay to this vision a hauntingly ironic rendition of “Pure Imagination” (Yes, the Willy Wonka ditty) sung with leaden and weary tones by Fiona Apple.
Yikes! You don’t get this level of full frontal assault on a core concept of industrialized food production from a major food chain and publicly owned company. To be sure, jabbing at supposedly mainstream values and practices is itself a marketing tactic of advanced consumer capitalism. Just about every countercultural trope has been fully co-opted by marketers to serve the interest of new products and brands that want to appeal to our own persistent sense of unease with modern culture. But I find Chipotle’s video and game a cut above the usual kind of domesticated, commoditized rebellion we take for granted from the advertising realm. This video has been seen almost 3 million times at YouTube already.
The Scarecrow game itself is well made, especially for a branded category that usually relies on re-skinned gaming engines. It is the persistence of the messaging that is most striking here. You play the Scarecrow, who in the early part of the game acts as a kind of corporate insurgent to keep vegetables from being processed at the factory and free caged animals before going about the business of building a more compassionate, sustainable food cultivation model.
There is a direct marketing hook in the game. Up to a million BYGOF coupons will be awarded in the game upon reaching new levels.
In addition to this just being a ballsier-than-normal exercise in green marketing, I like the way this program syncopates a number of elements to drive home the brand message. The video uses Moonbot’s sublime narrative talents and animation chops to call attention to the game itself in a way that usual app marketing never would or could. The company has a touch of the mojo that Pixar once had, and Chipotle was wise to align with them. But the game itself is remarkably well modulated. It gets its messaging across without a heavy hand. Small bits of information about the problems associated with processed food are dropped here and there. But the basic environment (mechanized crows, mechanized production, bucolic farms) all help make the points through immersion. Make no mistake -- the binary divide between evil corporation and the lost values of the idealistic farmer are achingly naïve and hackneyed. Yet the animated treatment helps Chipotle get away with it.
The game is already among the top ten most popular free games on the iOS charts, and despite some crashing issues, it gets a 4-star rating. And to their credit, the company resists the urge to pitch itself at every turn in the game or the video.
This is a branding campaign that uses apps as part of a truly holistic approach that not only reflects company values but engages consumers in enacting them.