In most native advertising, it’s not hard to know where the message dovetails with the messenger, but Chipotle’s upcoming four-part Hulu comedy series, “Farmed and Dangerous” makes a consumer have to wonder if there is a message like that at all.
Of course there is, but the Chipotle effort has gotten a lot of positive press in the last week, because it seems to represent some historic event in the short, hard-to-decipher history of native advertising. “Farmed and Dangerous” is nearly unique, not-quite native advertising in my book. But to some others, it must seem to be a very solid, and maybe scary, chapter.
At the Hulu site, if you click on the “Farmed and Dangerous” icon, a pop-up clearly identifies it as a comedy series “produced by Chipotle Mexican Grill.” But when its first episode premieres Feb. 17, you’re not going to see reference to the chain, or its logo, or a bunch of folks eating food they got there. There will be no signage in the background. Once in four weeks, Chipotle will be mentioned (when someone points out it's not owned by McDonald's, which is true--now. McDonald's was once a major investor.)
The series is not about Mexican food. It’s about attracting an audience that be made more wary of “industrial agriculture,” those huge food conglomerates that infuse animals with hormones and mickey around with grains to increase yield, size, color — you know the drill.
The basic story line goes like this: A company, Animoil, has developed a petroleum-based animal feed, called “PetroPellets” to be fed to livestock. Among the unforeseen problems: the animals tend to explode, and videos of that go viral on YouTube. Very damaging to the image.
That’s when Buck Marshall, the slick but dull CEO of the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB—and just now I realized what that spells) has to step in to handle a PR crisis. (The trailer is now viewable on the series' Web site.)
To push the series and the concept, the chain produced a series of deftly word-played IFIB commercials showing on on YouTube, where Chipotle is mentioned (once) and mispronounced as “Chipodel.”
Chipotle took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, in the name of the Industrial Food Image Bureau titled “An Open Letter to Everyone with Mouths” in which our Buck Marshall defends Animoil as “just one example of the innovative industrial agribusinesses committed to ‘making food affordable at any cost.’ “ He challenges critics by asking, “if sustainable agriculture is so ‘sustainable’ why are family farms disappearing at the rate of more than 300 per week?” (Chipotle is not mentioned in that ad either.)
Chipotle is very much a proponent of naturally-grown, non-GMOed, unsynthetic real food. They call it “food with integrity,” and it’s a central part of the Chipotle corporate mission. So “Farmed and Dangerous” serves that end, but only in a roundabout way, by pointing out the chemical additives and plain junk in our junk food, but not by offering some awkward alternative within the show, or healthy recipes or whatever. There is no Captain Chipotle to save the day, no “Going Green” hints.
“It’s first and foremost, entertainment,” says Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director. “The purpose of it is to spark conversation to make more people curious about where food comes from. But when you are looking at doing something like this, entertainment has to trump brand or you end up with mediocre content.”
Arnold says the idea of making a more hit-you-over-the-head comedy series would no doubt have made it not funny at all. This approach, he counters, is a “logical step and a breakthrough step.”
True enough. But if the real life Corn Refiners Organization someday wants to fund a streaming video series about a sexy, likable high fructose Coke-swigging farm girl and her insufferable egg-headed environmentalist boyfriend, I suppose all this subtle messaging might need more disclaimers.