the dark(ish) side of chipotle

[From my blog post with the Cornell Daily Sun]

What do you get when you have two minutes on national television, buzzwords like “organic,” “local” and “sustainable,” an intricate set of hundreds of hand-painted model pigs and Willie Nelson singing a Coldplay cover? One Heluva-good Youtube video: Chipotle’s “Back to the Start.”

Even more important, however, is a set of unbelievably effective marketing tools from the fast food taco giant.

What do you get when, after waiting in line for an hour at Ithaca’s newly-opened Chipotle, you anxiously open the foil of your hot burrito? Well … have you actually thought about it?

A few external forces were at work to convince you to drive downtown (as opposed to walking to Collegetown’s famed That Burrito Place) and pay for this burrito. Perhaps it was the sorrow-filled, animated farmer in the above video who walks with his head down and his hat removed, repenting all that he did wrong as a steward of the land; perhaps it was the naïve claim that, “whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones,” from Chipotle’s website; perhaps it was the statement that “we source organic and local produce when practical.”

All of the above are perfectly good reasons for the average consumer to be a Chipotle-consumer. But, who says we must be average consumers? Chipotle, and other such fast food corporations, likely bank on the fact that we are just that: average.

Chipotle does play the advertising game incredibly well. They provide us with enough insight into their products to make them seem exceptional because they avoid antibiotics. Chipotle fails to mention, however, that the United States Department of Agriculture requires that antibiotic residues do not exist in an animal before it is slaughtered. This means that, although a withdrawal period is mandatory before slaughter, the animal may have consumed antibiotics in their lifetime.

Chipotle effectively enhances their advertising with buzzwords like “organic” and “local.” This is where creative jargon truly plays a role: The fact that they use such products “when practical” implies that they try very hard to have these products. Yes, and I am also trying pretty darn hard to get a 4.0; you can try as hard as you want, but Ithaca is not going to be producing mass quantities of avocados for guacamole this March. It is very easy to see how one may take these buzzwords, in addition to Chipotle’s reputation for being “fresh” and “healthy,” and assume the food is, in fact, healthy. Like all fast food, serving size is a big issue. An innocent burrito can quickly become an overstuffed, king sized monolith packing over 1200 calories, exceeding the caloric intake of a Big Mac and large fries from McDonald’s.

For many hapless souls, the most offensive piece of the Chipotle “Back to the Start” advertisement was negative light cast on today’s stereotypical farmer. The story follows a farmer who uses century-old techniques, then chooses to expand his farm. As soon as his operation grows into the much vilified “factory farm,” the overly idealistic clip returns “Back To the Start” of agriculture. Chipotle is trying to capitalize on making today’s farmers look bad, attributing human characteristics to each individual pig, and thus grasping at the consumer’s heart strings. More and more farmers are becoming frustrated that though people would never go to a doctor using a stethoscope instead of an MRI, they expect farmers to produce food for the world using technologies from the early 1900s.

I am not denying that Chipotle has good food: Consumers [like me] obviously feel it does. Rather, I am praising their successful marketing plan, all the while encouraging you — the consumer of this “Food With Integrity” — to consider how the advertisement alone is affecting your choices in what you eat.

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