By Molly Freeman
Photo by Chipotle Brendan.
Chipotle Mexican Grill premiered an original comedy series on Feb 17, Farmed & Dangerous, about the downside to the factory farming industry. As a food-service company that prides itself in promoting organic and sustainable farming practices, the concept seems like it’d lean more toward propaganda than satire. But, while the four-part show might walk the line, it’s definitely more satirical.
In the first season, the fake industrial giant Animoil develops petroleum-based animal feed called PetroPellet, which will save money for industrial farms, but has the unfortunate side effect of exploding cows. When a security video of the incident goes viral, Animoil enlists the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB) for damage control. Soon spin master Bucky Marshall goes head to head with Chip Randolph, head of the also-fictional Sustainable Family Farming Association (SFFA), who promoted the video.
Critics, such as The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Weiss, have said the narrative of Farmed & Dangerous is overshadowed by Chipotle’s overt product placement and can leave viewers with a bad taste in their mouth.
“There’s something disturbing about a corporation hijacking our attention with twenty-two minutes of entertainment specifically engineered to make us want to buy something,” Weiss wrote in her review. However, according to Chipotle’s marketing department, product placement was not their intention with the new series.
Prior to launching Farmed & Dangerous on Hulu and Hulu Plus, Chipotle issued a press release to detail the plot and underlying reasoning behind the sitcom. Farmed & Dangerous was created with the intent to portray the company’s values and commitment to using high quality ingredients without the Chipotle’s explicit branding.
Although the explanation, and corresponding plot synopsis, sound like overt propaganda, Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s chief marketing and development officer, alleged the show is more about encouraging a dialogue than persuading viewers.
“Much of our marketing is aimed at making consumers more curious about where their food comes from and how it is prepared,” explained Crumpacker in the Chipotle press release. “By making complex issues about food production more understandable–even entertaining–we are reaching people who have not typically been tuned into these types of issues.”
However, the premise of Farmed & Dangerous leans toward the basic struggle at the core of all propaganda: Us vs. Them. The show uses stereotypes of heartless factory farming and public relations characters in contrast to the nice, charming sustainable farming advocate to create the perception that Chip—and subsequently Chipotle—always makes ethical and honorable decisions. Animoil and Bucky, in contrast, are always unethical and dishonorable.
What redeems Farmed & Dangerous from its dichotomous stereotyping is the character of Sophia Marshall, Bucky’s daughter, who seems to represent the average viewer. Sophia is first introduced driving to work, stopping at a fast food drive-thru and singing along to the radio in her car–an incredibly relatable sequence of events to the average person. Despite her relationship to the spin master of the show, she has a rather unbiased–if not uninformed–standpoint on the farming industry.
Sophia is the doorway through which viewers of Farmed & Dangerous are exposed to both sides of the argument about healthy farming practices. Her personal life puts her in the predicament between IFIB and SFFA, as her boyfriend is an heir to Animoil, yet she is flirtatious with Chip. Sophia puts a human face at the center of the “Us vs. Them” dynamic that makes it more complicated.
However, members of the farming industry have argued that Farmed & Dangerous is misleading and uses bullying tactics to put down big agriculture in order to promote Chipotle products. Nicole Patterson, a corn and hog farmer in Decatur County, Iowa, described the show as “a smart marketing ploy, but for us farmers it’s unfortunate because they are using fear and twisting the truth.”
California dairy farmer Ted Sheely said Farmed & Dangerous implements “values branding” or “a marketing strategy in which a company tries to instill a feeling of righteousness in the customers who buy its products.” Sheely explained that while he welcomes an open dialogue about the agricultural industry, Chipotle’s sarcastic tone in the show is more of a hindrance than a help to the conversation.
Sheely also brought up Dana Liebelson’s investigative look into Chipotle’s organic, locally sourced, antibiotic-free, sustainable food claims published on Mother Jones in September. Liebelson found that the company tries to live up to their advertising ideals but supply shortages and technicalities prevent them from doing so.
For example, Chipotle says their products are “natural” an adjective that merits no federally regulated definition as with “organic.” Additionally, the company’s standard of “locally sourced” requires an ingredient to be grown within 350 miles of the restaurant, 50 miles closer than USDA recommendation.
Contrary to the farmers opposing Farmed & Dangerous, Ben & Jerry’s has lent their support to Chipotle’s comedy series. Marketers at the ice cream giant created a new advertisement to run on Hulu with Farmed & Dangerous. Voiced by Jerry Greenfield, the commercial claims the company “won’t be happy until every possible ingredient in Ben & Jerry’s is ethically sourced, non-GMO sourced and fair trade certified.”
Similar to Chipotle, Ben & Jerry’s has thrown their weight behind GMO-free ingredients and fair-trade products as well as opposing bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Last summer the Vermont-based ice cream company announced it would become entirely GMO-free by 2015–at the time, their ingredients were 80 percent GMO-free.
Whether or not viewers agree with the politics behind Chipotle’s Farmed & Dangerous and Ben & Jerry’s liberal-minded commercials, it has to be said they’re appealing to a certain kind of crowd–and they’re doing it effectively.
Farmed & Dangerous appeals to the same audience as The Daily Show: twentysomethings who are already half-interested in issues of this kind, consume online media, and have a healthy skepticism that will (hopefully) lead to more in-depth research on their own time. Farmed & Dangerous offers more entertainment than education.