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Foodies and Aggies play on tribal bonds

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Chipotle's Scarecrow video on You Tube continues to draw attention and controversy, a measure of the power of its imagery and message.  I have counted at least a dozen articles in outlets ranging from the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, to USA Today, Mother Jones and Civil Eats. Interested readers will find a list of links at the end of this post. 

Even in an environment of government shutdown and an expiring farm bill, the Scarecrow video-related posts have generated more traffic on our AgChallenge2050 blog, Facebook page and my e-mail inbox than any other item. What is going on here? Why has a single, if masterful, piece of commercial propaganda attracted so much attention in the world of food and agriculture? 

As many of the articles analyzing the video note, Scarecrow is more than just an advertisement aimed at selling burritos. This is an approach that Forbes describes as “cause marketing.” Chipotle is more than willing to incur the wrath of much of the conventional food and agriculture system to strengthen trust in its brand with a key group of target customers, largely millennials. As one of my correspondents observed, the Scarecrow video is a “...highly effective retelling of a folk narrative about conventional agriculture.” The video first uses the narrative to strengthen the sense of identity and “tribal bonds” among those that share common beliefs that our food and agricultural system is unhealthy and unsustainable. Then it seeks to monetize the group identity and values by linking them to the Chipotle brand. 

As Forbes points out, “cause marketing” is not always effective. While the viral buzz suggests that Chipotle’s marketing strategy is working, “aggies” have not been the video’s only critics. Charges of “greenwashing” have also bubbled to the surface. Perhaps the most entertaining was a widely circulated parody video, The Honest Scarecrow, from Funny Or Die. 

Playing on tribal bonds and common values to achieve commercial ends is certainly not limited to companies selling burritos and sandwiches to the “foodie” tribe. Think back to Feb. 3, 2013, and the Dodge Ram Super Bowl advertisement. This is another wonderful example of commercial propaganda, one which seeks to reinforce common values and strengthen bonds within the "aggie" tribe, with Paul Harvey—rather than an indie rocker— delivering the "tribal anthem." 

So now we have a foodie tribe and an aggie tribe. The difficult, hopefully not forlorn, objective of Farm Foundation’s Dialogue Project is to build at least a modicum of trust between members of these two tribes. Commercial propaganda from either side simply helps to reinforce demonization on one side and denial on the other. 

Our approach at Farm Foundation is to build trust and understanding through "democratic dialogue" which has been at the core of the Foundation's approach to policy issues for more than eight decades. It’s not the sexiest of work, nor does it often constitute breaking news. But the Foundation’s democratic dialogues have yielded an organic farmer and a chemical company executive sharing fields of common ground. They have brought a dairy farmer and wheat farmer shoulder to shoulder with farm workers and labor unions. They have brought environmental advocates, health professionals, chefs and horticulture producers to agreement on misinformation and lack of consumer knowledge. All are first steps toward the common ground that can yield productive actions.

Farm Foundation's vision is to bring both tribes to the table in search of a common vision for the future of our food and agriculture system. The table is set. Please join us. 

Links to some of the copy written about the Chipotle video:

Farm Foundation’s AgChallenge2050:

Funny or Die:

The Guardian: 

Mother Jones: 

The New Yorker:

Knight Science Journalism MIT:

Los Angeles,0,7208998.story

Slate Magazine:

Huffington Post:


Wall Street Journal:



Neilson Conklin Neilson Conklin (
President, Farm Foundation, NFP

View more posts by Neilson Conklin

1 comment on “Foodies and Aggies play on tribal bonds”

  1. Tim Gieseke
    Posted Friday, October 11, 2013 at 9:25:14 AM

    Good Job! Stay the course and others will follow.

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.