This morning, a new, controversial ad campaign hit the press. New Yorkers, en route to work, were likely the first to see it, because its inaugural imprint was in the New York Post, in the form of a full-page advertisement. And it isn't at all kind to Chipotle.
The ad, which features a flexing, overweight male, looking directly into the camera, smiling almost snidely, clearly mocks the notion that eating at Chipotle is a healthy life choice. "Eat two 'all natural' Chipotle burritos a week and you could gain 40 pounds in a year," the ad says, oozing with sarcasm. At the very top, large block letters read '' 'Chipotle' Healthy," in large block letters. This is what it looks like.
The link teased in oversize capital letters, chubbychipotle.com, leads to a single page Web site. Within it, Chipotle's slogan — "Food with integrity" — is altered to say "Food with hypocrisy." Its commitments to sustainability, antibiotic-free meat, and GMO-free food are also disparaged. Sofrito, the Web site quips at one point, is a word the chain "made up for tofu"—even though Chipotle's vegetarian option is actually called sofritas.
In all, there are four sections, and each one of them is equally harsh in its treatment, taking issue with distinct facets of Chipotle's message.
The campaign is being funded by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), which is only apparent once one scrolls to the very bottom of the Web page. CCF is a nonprofit organization which lobbies on behalf of the food companies. The group's mission is perhaps most clearly evident in those it deems its adversaries.
"A growing cabal of activists has meddled in Americans’ lives in recent years," CCF says on its Web site. "They include self-anointed 'food police,' health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal-rights misanthropes, and meddling bureaucrats."
Chipotle, CCF holds, falls firmly into that family of enemy activists. "A lot of what Chipotle says about its food is based on misconceptions," said Will Coggin, who is the director of research at CCF. "We launched this campaign because we wanted to take this stuff head on."
Specifically, Coggin points to the chain's self-aggrandizing statements about its food. "They've built up this idea that somehow their food is better for you, that it's healthier for you," he said. "We're not going to take it."
Chipotle, for its part, is neither surprised by the attack nor impressed by it. "What they're saying, what they're accusing us of, it's nothing new," said Chris Arnold, Chipotle's director of communications. "They're just rehashing things others have been making up about us for years.
"There's nothing false at all about our advertising or marketing," he added. "But there are legitimate ways to challenge these sorts of things. Launching a smear campaign isn't one of them. It's actually just pretty infantile."
Chipotle has earned both praise and skepticism in its ascent to the upper echelon of the fast food world. The company's mission, which is centered on a commitment to sourcing the most ethical ingredients possible, has proven an honest one. This year, when it became clear that a pork supplier wasn't meeting the company's standards, Chipotle took the fall and stopped serving pork at hundreds of restaurants around the country. The act was met with applause, as consumers celebrated the chain's steadfastness about its core values.
Chipotle's announcement that it would no longer serve foods containing genetically modified organisms, however, was far less popular. Much of the media, including The Washington Post's editorial board, accused the chain of irresponsible fear-mongering.
But CCF's campaign calls the entirety of Chipotle's messaging into question, which Arnold says is pretty ironic.
"We've always been very transparent in the way that we run our business," he said. "You can't really say the same about the Center for Consumer Freedom."
Indeed, there is reason to believe that the organization's intention might be less pure than their statements make it seem. CCF, after all, was founded by Rick Berman, a lawyer and lobbyist, famous for arguing on behalf of big food companies and against big health initiatives.
Initially, the group was founded to fight smoking curbs in restaurants. The money, of course, came from the coffers of tobacco companies and restaurants. But it has since shifted its focus to the food and beverage industry, where many large players are worried about the impact of health, nutrition and animal welfare concerns.
"Our general goal is to push against activist groups," Coggin says. "We're very clear about that."
What CCF isn't clear about is who exactly funds its work. Coggin holds that no company, or even group of companies, helped spearhead the anti-Chipotle campaign. "It's just a project of ours." But it's impossible for people to know, because the center is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, and, as such, doesn't have to disclose individual donors. Instead, it offers transparency by sharing only a vague sense of where it gets its money.
"The Center for Consumer Freedom is supported by restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers," the organization's Web site says.
"Mr. Berman is being paid to advocate the interests of a company or group of companies or industry, but won't say who those are," said Arnold. "That seems kind of shady."
Shady or not, the public attacks are likely only to pick up speed and prominence. Asked whether the full-page ad in the New York Post and new Web site were the extent of the campaign, Coggin assured that it's only the start.
"Oh, there is more to come," he said. "But I won't say anymore. I can't talk about it at this time."