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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 andmeaning 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

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