One of the more surprising bits of television broadcasted during the Grammy Awards last night was not a hastily thrown together eulogy, nor was it some dance spectacle with religious and sexual overtones – it was an extra long commercial plainly advocating the practice of sustainable farming. Chipotle, the burrito dealing giant that introduced the suburbs to the concept of carnitas, decided to go big and bold with their first televised ad, and purchased themselves 2+ minutes of Grammy airtime to spin a little moral narrative about the pitfalls of industrial farming and the inherent virtues of small and sustainable farming, all sung to the tune of “The Scientist” by the grandfather of Farm-Aid, Willie Nelson (the song is actually a Coldplay cover that is done a great service by Mr. Nelson).
The ad (or short film, depending on how much recognition you want to give it) is titled “Back to the Start” and shows an evolution, of sorts, of farming in America: from simple agrarian animal husbandry to something inhumane, industrialized, and detrimental to everyone involved. See the video below:
The tone goes from cute and cuddly animation to something darker and more ominous that reveals how far off track we have strayed. This progression weighs heavy on the cute animated farmer, who is seen in the winter of his discontent, and who ultimately breaks free of the industrial farming treadmill to return to the simplicity and wholesomeness of sustainable hog farming (nary a vegetable is seen growing in this cartoon ad). There was something very reminiscent of artist Robert Crumb’s lesser-known “A Short History of America” series of drawings that reveal a similar progression, or downfall, of the American countryside. See below:
The message is unquestionably about encouraging awareness, to both consumer and producer, to reverse course and return to a more simple and sustainable model. While it is a Chipotle advertisement, the company obviously took the opportunity, not to hawk burritos, but to send a message and associate themselves with a movement that puts corporations on the frontlines of the sustainable agriculture and farming movement. The ad’s intent, besides raising awareness, is to drive viewers to buy/download the Willie Nelson tune, which will put money into the coffers of Chipotle’s Cultivate Foundation – a foundation started last year to promote and support sustainable family farming. Chipotle has donated over $2 million in the last two years to groups promoting a similar agenda, like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and with the success of this ad, more revenue will likely be collected and distributed to organizations that move the conversation, and reality, of sustainable farming forward.
The ad is cute, impactful, effective and bold in its presumption that viewers will be ready and receptive toward such a message. I commend it for its simplicity, but it does fall short on a few points: The first is that it shows the farmer’s inner moral battle and his ultimate resolution of leaving behind his adopted industrialized practices and returning to a more natural model. If only it were this easy. Most farmers participating in the industrialized model were lured into the promise of greater yields and returns and are now held economically captive by a system that would not allow them to make such a change, at least not without great hardship or threat of ruin. The majority of these farmers are not greedy sadists who take pleasure in keeping pigs, chickens and cows confined, but farmers that bought into a farming model that has made them effectively a ward of a larger corporation and unable to emancipate themselves.
Another small issue I have with it is that the ad, in its promotion of simple farming, makes sustainable practices look identical to the practices of a century ago. While yes, sustainable farming may look a lot more like the farming of the 19th century than the feedlots of the last 50 years, it is hardly unsophisticated, nor unscientific. Many of the most successful sustainable farming practices combine the best of traditional farming and the advances of 21st century technical innovation. A return to a sustainable model does not necessitate a return to a little house on the prairie. And lastly, I wish there was a little more of a directive or gesture toward education, other than to “download the song” at the end of the ad. If the audience has sat through a 2-minute ad concerning sustainable farming, the odds are that they would be open to a message that implores them to take a more definitive action towards reshaping the agricultural economy.
Granted, these are small issues with an ad that may accomplish much toward raising awareness and raising the bar when it comes to domestic farming practices. What did you think? Is this advertising at its best? Does the message move you toward action?