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Chipotle #Scarecrow Campaign: Advertising or narrative and WHY it worked

Media Psychology: Chipotle #Scarecrow Campaign: Advertising or narrative and WHY it worked by Lisa Peyton

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by Lisa Peyton

‘Chipotle’s latest marketing campaign has gone viral’ reads the headline of one of the many articles buzzing about this 3 minute video simply called ‘The Scarecrow’.

Since first hearing about the video over a week ago in a newsletter I subscribe to, I have been bombarded with references to the campaign in almost every facet of my life. My digital marketing students a Portland State, my social media clients, my connections on LinkedIn, the girl at the gym, strangers on the streetcar – everyone, it seems, it talking about it.

Chipotle has managed to trigger a wide range of responses; outcries of hypocrisy from vegans on the left, protests from conventional farmers on the right and angry fans on Facebook who  demand The Scarecrow app promoted by the video is available on Android. The Scarecrow video has garnered over 6 million views on YouTube with the final count likely to be much higher. So WHY did this video manage to cause such a stir and get so much attention? There are several factors that have contributed to its rapid proliferation.

Empowerment Marketing

The Scarecrow video is the poster child for what Jonah Sachs calls Empowerment Marketing. In his book called ‘Winning the Story Wars’, Sachs describes a new breed of advertising that ‘inspires action by painting a picture of an imperfect world that can be repaired through
heroic action’ (Sachs, J. 2012). Sachs was tweeting about The Scarecrow campaign himself, shooting out a link to an article interviewing the animation’s creator, Moonbot Studios. According to Sachs, there are three tactics that can separate empowerment marketing from more traditional marketing messages. The first is to expose the lies of inadequacy or tell a more  resonant truth in the face of commonly accepted lies (Sachs, J. 2012). The Scarecrow indirectly challenges the glowing image that other corporate food chain advertisements depict of the farming and meat industry. Instead of ignoring the fact that many food chains serve  products riddled with GMOs, Chipotle shines a light on this issue and attempts to differentiate itself from the rest. The video paints a bleak picture of a world run by corporations that use questionable and cruel means to get food to the masses. There is an inherent risk with pointing out these types of commonly accepted lies – viewers  start to question the veracity of the entire message and the brand’s connection with the cause. After a lengthy discussion in my marketing class about whether or not Chipotle lives up to the standards set in The Scarecrow video, one student astutely pointed out that we  would NEVER question the TRUTH of a McDonald’s ad. He argued that we understand the ADS we see aren’t telling us the truth and that is a generally accepted convention of advertising.

The second tactic that creates empowering brand messages is speaking to the hero, not the child. Sachs explains that casting the viewer as the hero of the narrative and the brand as a helper emphasizes the power of the audience (Sachs, J. 2012). The Scarecrow video does a good job at depicting an average Joe (The Scarecrow) that is working to make a difference and then draws a connection between the Chipotle brand and the hero of the story.

Finally the third factor that differentiates empowerment marketing is forgetting the consumer and calling on the citizen. In the interview that Sachs posted on Twitter, I was struck that one of the designers actually referred to the people eating the food in the video as
‘citizens’. Perhaps they had read about this third tactic that believes inspired citizens make better brand evangelists than helpless consumers. The citizens in our video are empowered to make a different choice by eating the better, healthier food prepared by the
scarecrow. The message is that by making a different choice, by eating at a food chain that cares, we can all ‘cultivate a better world’. That powerful message coupled with state-of-the-art animation and BRILLIANT creative could get tears out of stone.

‘Spreadability’

While elements of empowerment marketing may have helped to make the message more compelling to viewers, there are technical components that contributed to its ‘spreadability’ as well.  Henry Jenkins, known as the father of Transmedia storytelling, along with Sam Ford, Joshua Green and Joshua Benjamin Green outline factors that can increase the chances content might
be spread. These factors include:

  •     Available when and where audiences want it
  •     Portability
  •     Easily reusable in a variety of ways
  •     Relevant to multiple audiences
  •     Be part of a steady stream of material

The Scarecrow video hits on at least four out of these five factors. It’s a YouTube video that can be viewed across multiple devices anytime, anywhere. It’s of interest to many audiences; vegans, vegetarians, corporate farmers, health conscious diners and Fiona Apple
fans. It has already been ‘reused’ by funnyordie.com who has released a parody of the video. And finally, a solid argument could be made that because the video is promoting The Scarecrow  game, an app built for the iOS platform, that the campaign is part of a continuing stream of material.

Backlash and Confusion

Some have argued that The Scarecrow campaign is sheer brilliance. Fans of the campaign include content strategist and ‘Content Rules’ author, Ann Handley, who penned a glowing  review on LinkedIn. Forbes contributor, David Vinjamuri, wrote an article entitled ‘Chipotle Scarecrow Makes Enemies To Win customers’, and goes as far as to declare that “The Scarecrow is not advertising. It is a narrative.” Why can’t it be both? Webster’s  defines advertising as “the action of calling something to the attention of the public especially by paid announcements.” I feel The Scarecrow IS advertising, despite the fact Chipotle would prefer me to think otherwise. The funnyordie.com parody creator agrees with  me, as they changed the lyrics to poke fun at this blatant attempt to manipulate viewers. The first stanza of THEIR version begins like this:

Come with us and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination
With an ad made for you by a giant corporation
We’ll begin, drop you in to a great high-budget animation
What you’ll see will be pure manipulation

BOTH the original scarecrow video and the parody are making the rounds on social media and there is some evidence that not all Chipotle fans understand the message. One tweet read:

Confused by @ChipotleTweets new campaign #scarecrow…so don’t eat meat?

That seems to be a theme amongst viewers who are confused that a food chain that DOES serve meat would promote a video that seems to advocate a vegetarian diet. One viewer even created  his own YouTube video responding to the campaign, outlining his confusion on this subject. There may be some evidence that Chipotle WANTED the controversy and confusion. Hernandez’s article interviewing the creators of the video quotes Limbert Fabian as saying:

It’s amazing how the dialogue is just incredibly fast. Not only just about the film – that’s interesting and we love that – but the subconversation that’s going on about the intent of  the film. I know Chipotle really wanted that to happen and we were curious whether it was gonna be very negative or not…

Regardless of whether or not this was the outcome expected, Chipotle must be nothing short of ECSTATIC to have created this Internet sensation. Yes, their practices will be put under the  microscope for awhile but the lasting narrative that Chipotle cares will be extremely hard to silence.

References:

Hernandez, S. (2013) INTERVIEW: The brilliant minds behind Chipotle’s haunting scarecrow ad.
theweek.com. (http://theweek.com/article/index/249656/interview-the-brilliant-minds-behind-
chipotles-haunting-scarecrow-ad)

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., Green, J., & Green, J. B. (2012). Spreadable media: Creating value and
meaning in a networked culture. NYU Press.

Sachs, J. (2012). Winning the Story Wars: Why Those who Tell-and Live-the Best Stories Will
Rule the Future. Harvard Business Press. (Excerpted from article at
http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679785/empowerment-marketing-advertising-to-humans-as-more-than-
just-selfish-machines)

Vinjamuri, D. (2013) Chipotle Scarecrow Makes Enemies To Win Customers. Forbes.com
(http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2013/09/13/chipotle-scarecrow-makes-enemies-to-
win-customers/)

Videos:

The Scarecrow – Original – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUtnas5ScSE

The Honest Scarecrow, funnyordie.com parody -
http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/da66b8f1aa/honest-scarecrow

  1. Lisa Peyton

    Comment/response from Pamela Rutledge, PhD, MBA, Director at Media Psychology Research Center:

    I was surprised at the video. It’s almost as if someone looked at the Coke Happiness Factory and then decided, since that imaginary world was successful, to build their own. The odd choices, from my perpective, are: 1) the emotions are largely negative, which means any halo effect won’t help the visceral brand relationship, 2) as the funnyordie parody emphasizes (and as you note), the message is counter intuitive, 3) it paints a very bleak future with a very unrealistic solution –buying fast food to stop a monopoly of a “corporate farmer” and 4) it is preaching to the choir–it is so heavy-handed in the anti-corporate farm message that the only people that are going “yeah, yeah” are those that already believe but they will also be the ones most likely to challenge the basic premise that Chipotle is a good guy. Results from a recent research study by Prestin (2013) showed that narratives with the underdog theme inspire hope. But is the Chipotle narrative effective at delivering that message or did they spend too much of their narrative building the challenge without showing enough evidence of the aiblity of the scarecrow to overcome it? I also wondered, in the context of intertextuality, what reference points or mental models we pulled with the image of a scarecrow. The Wizard of Oz? Was the scarecrow effective? Vogler argues that the scarecrow is based on the Jungian archetype of the shapeshifter a instigator of change and symbolic of the psychological urge to transform. But does the 3 minutes spot it leave you confident or uplifted? Do you have confidence in the future?

    Great point about the accepting the “truthfulness” of McD versus Chipotle. I would argue that Chipotle has cast itself a prponent of the “new” advertising, emphasizing authenticity and transparency to go along with organizaitonal responsibility. Therefore our expectations are that Chipotle will be more honest than McD. I would argue that this is a mistep that will not expand their customer base. Does the addage no press is bad fit when it challenges their core identity? Were you left with the message that Chipotle cares? The disconnect was too large for me. I’d vote with funnyordie, that it felt like manipulation.

    For it to be empowerment, I would have wanted to see the scarecrow start in a little earlier on his quest and to inspire the others around him to do the same (grow, cook, whatever), not just stand in line (i.e. collective agency, Bandura, 2001). Maybe emanicpate a cow or two. When you’re trying to build a reputation of caring, it may be risky to single out an entire industry as bad, rather than just inferior. In a world where people are starving, should we demonize food producers while you’re working to create a more sustainable and humane food production that is also widely accessible and affordable, which so far it is not?

    Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. [Journal; Peer Reviewed Journal;]. Media Psychology, 3(3), 265-299.

    Prestin, A. (2013). The Pursuit of Hopefulness: Operationalizing Hope in Entertainment Media Narratives. Media Psychology, 16 (318-346).

    Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Third ed.). Chelsea, MI: Sheridan Books.

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