About a month ago, Chipotle released an animated short, The Scarecrow, a three-minute video which offers a moving critique of industrial food production. Set to Fiona Apple covering, “A World of Pure Imagination,” from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the video has gone viral, receiving over seven million hits at the time I am writing.
Of course, it didn’t take long for a parody of the ad to emerge. Funny or Die, a site “where celebrities, established and upcoming comedians and regular users can all put up stuff they think is funny,” posted Honest Scarecrow, a variant on the original ad emphasizing the irony of a large fast food chain like Chipotle critiquing, well, fast food.
In our digital age, this kind of ad-spoofing has become a regular form of social activism. Consider the recent outcry over a Cheerios ad, which profiled an interracial couple and their child. The video went viral, and some of its defenders even produced a spoof that featured a family with same-sex parents.
Because we live in thoroughly commercialized culture, it should come as no surprise that advertisements such as Chipotle’s garner such popular attention. However, what is actually going in these conflicts? Why does The Scarecrow evoke such strong reactions, both for and against?
Religion scholar, Wendy Doniger, defines myths as our most important stories, and if we examine advertisements as genre of myth for consumer culture, perhaps we can comprehend their cultural power.
The Scarecrow does much more than simply promote a product; it performs significant cultural work as well. Bruce Lincoln, in Theorizing Myth, describes myth as “ideology in narrative form,” and these ads and their parodies offer competing mythologized accounts of post-industrial society.
Chipotle depicts an alienated worker (the scarecrow), whose life is bereft of meaning and seemingly without hope, and living and toiling in the filth of an industrialized urban landscape. The scarecrow, however, becomes the hero of the story by assuming the role of entrepreneur, who will venture out against the currents of conformity and offer something fresh, something natural. It is the countercultural entrepreneur, who dares to imagine a different world, and who will offer us a way out of anonymity of mass society.
This tale recasts the shift from industrial to post-industrial society, from scientific management to affective forms of labor, as a story about the triumph of the new economy over old industry, of the individual over nameless, faceless “system.” Chipotle, of course, is recasting itself as the scarecrow here, as a celebration of industrial society’s demise.
Funny or Die’s parody inverts this narrative ideology, lending credence to Doniger’s claim in The Implied Spider, that what makes myths powerful is their elasticity, the “ability to stand on their head.” In their version, a revised soundtrack declares Chipotle’s vision a truly a “world of pure imagination, brought to you in an ad by a big corporation.” Our journey into post-industrial society become the story of how business has co-opted our dreams, and transformed our resistance into an opportunity to promote its brand.
Cultural theorist Roland Barthes might suggest that Funny or Die has engaged in the work of the mythologist, who, he claims in Mythologies, deconstructs the myth only by producing a second-order myth, by “mythifying the myth. They expose the undisclosed fact that Chipotle is not merely romanticizing the entrepreneur, but anchoring an epic redescription of history to its brand identity.