Chipotle is known for shaking things up, from the Denver restaurant chain's use of sustainable, locally produced ingredients to its quirky advertising.
But its latest marketing campaign makes previous ones look quaint by comparison.
Chipotle's "Farmed and Dangerous," a four-episode original comedy series that debuted on Hulu on Monday, barely mentions the fast-casual Mexican chain.
Instead, it presents a narrative that criticizes industrial farming practices while extolling the virtues of small-scale, progressive growers.
But whether it's sarcasm or satire, principle or propaganda, this bold twist on product integration isn't sitting well with some Colorado ranchers — even as it brings national attention to the company.
"Chipotle's theory is that the way they tie their brand back into this show is not through product placement but through the public relations and media that surrounds it," Daniel Rosenberg, co-founder of Piro, which created and produced the series, said over the phone from New York. "They're not simply shoving the product name down your throat; they're creating a dialogue around the subject."
The 22-minute pilot traces the fallout at fictional corporation Animoil after a video of an exploding cow goes viral, pitting boss Buck Marshall (Ray Wise) and his daughter Sophia (Karynn Moore) against rakish activist Chip (John Sloan).
"People in this country are not being fed very well, and they're not as healthy because of it," said Wise, whose acting credits include "Twin Peaks" and "Mad Men."
"Farmed and Dangerous," which cost about $250,000 per episode, according to The New York Times, comes on the heels of Chipotle's other experiments in nontraditional advertising, including 2011's "Back to the Start" and 2013's "The Scarecrow."
"In the boardrooms of Madison Avenue, they call it 'values branding:' a marketing strategy in which a company tries to instill a feeling of righteousness in the customers who buy its products," Ted Sheely, a farmer and board member on various California farming organizations, wrote on the Truth About Trade & Technology site. "But what kind of values would inspire a corporation to wage a smear campaign against America's farmers?"
"I object to the broad strokes," said Jo Stanko, who runs a 2,000-acre, fifth-generation cattle ranch outside Steamboat Springs. "It's a conversation we need to be having, but it shouldn't be to the benefit of just one company or for the purpose of marketing."
Chipotle countered that it works with thousands of farmers and ranchers and is not ignoring their concerns.
"We have nothing but the utmost respect for them," said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. "We make these (films) specifically to spark these conversations."
Founded in Denver in 1993, Chipotle operates more than 1,500 restaurants worldwide. Its "Farmed and Dangerous" campaign is just the latest to blur the line between advertising, entertainment and social consciousness.
But its inherent quality and compatibility with Chipotle's message ought to quiet fears of other brands becoming content producers, according to Piro's Rosenberg.
"Some people think this is the devil," he said. " 'Oh, a brand creating entertainment? This is the end of the world as we know it!' But people who have seen the finished product know we're telling a creative story."
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, email@example.com or twitter.com/johnwenzel