On Farm-vertising: How Fast-Food Chains Have Gone Small to Sell Big
some farm-to-table cred to the drive-through.
In 1903, Jones Dairy Farm, a Wisconsin family-owned business, decided to make itself part of the story of its food. Proprietor Milo C. Jones began selling sausage with a marketing campaign built around a “secret” family recipe, which included ham, loin, and shoulder cuts rather than just pork trimmings. Ads for the new product boasted that “Most Little Pigs go to Market—but the Best Little Pigs go to Jones.”
Jones’s “Little Pig” quickly became a meme of advertising, a hearkening back to the origins of a foodstuff’s quality ingredients. Milo Jones was onto something, perhaps more than he realized: More than a century later, the strategy has become popular across the food industry, particularly for fast-food brands. “Little Pig” hints at what we’ve almost come to expect from food advertising today: A careful appreciation of provenance, which has been expanded to include the people on the farm itself. Modern markets have found that we like to know we can trace our grocery-store buys back to a human being and a specific “Jones Dairy Farm,” even though we know little more about them than their names.
Call it farm-vertising. These ads promise to demonstrate that fast food isn’t the product of a global industrial complex shipping food in to a central processing kitchen and then trucking products out to the McDonald’s on the corner. They would have us believe that it’s our friendly neighborhood grocer buying from local backyards who is responsible for our Big Macs. The ads typically feature a close-in shot of a farmer standing out in his fields, pulling up a freshly picked whatever and showing it off to the camera, seemingly revealing the familiar origins of our fast food. Throw in some panning shots of amber waves of grain, epic American landscapes, and you’ve got a food-positive message even a locavore activist can appreciate.
This message, however, is not particularly accurate. The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture reports that food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate—and for lettuce, a staple of fast-food burgers, that figure rises all the way to 2,055 miles. Chipotle’s trumpeting of “local” produce means that it comes from within 250 miles of its distribution centers—better than average, but not exactly next door.
Perhaps it was Chipotle’s landmark 2011 ad “Back to the Start” that kicked off the “Little Pig” revival by animating how Chipotle farmers were supposedly giving up on factory farming. The same year, the USDA launched a national campaign with the slogan “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” Between 2011 and 2013, McDonald’s struck gold with a series of high-budget farm-vertising videos fit for a travel show that profiled its farmers and fishermen. Steve Foglesong’s Illinois cattle farm is highlighted in one spot, with stunning long shots of cows in fields and hand-scrawled script underlying the artisanal branding, the farming process is made as aesthetically appealing as possible. Potato farmer Frank Martinez even became a viral hero for his self-made success. In 2014, Whole Foods’ first national ad placed itself firmly in the farm-vertising canon. The abstractly inspiring spot explained that “we want to know where our food comes from” against a backdrop of anachronistic cattle herds, sparkling-clean fishing boats, and silhouetted farmers walking in slo-mo past a glowing sunset.
It shouldn't be a surprise that, whether they’re selling Big Macs or organic produce, these ads present a romanticized version of farms and farming. The ads would like viewers to believe that they’re depicting small-scale sustainable farming. But many are simply rebranding the farms that make up, in aggregate, industrial agriculture. In seeking to associate themselves with small-scale producers and the health and environmental benefits of organic farming and food, some ad campaigns ask us to forget the pollution of factory farming, the national obesity epidemic many restaurant meals contribute to, and the high carbon footprint that results when food is sourced from far-flung places.
Truth in advertising in these spots runs the gamut. Chipotle is committed to the organic sourcing it shows off in its ads. For its part, McDonald’s leaves out any images of spraying the chemicals used on those farms its ads highlight, and the processing the food undergoes after being harvested—all the less pretty parts.
Even our notion of the family farm, that lynchpin of Americana, is itself something of a marketing gambit. In 2011, the USDA found that 97 percent of U.S. farms were family farms, and that “small family farms” make up 90 percent of U.S. farm output. Yet scale determines nothing about the way farms produce their food. Family farms make up 59 percent of farms with food production contracts, but they also account for only 24 percent of total production. In other words, there might be more family farms, but they’re producing less, so the vast majority of food is still being made on corporate factory farms. Where does that leave the ads?
Most recently, Wendy’s jumped on the farm-vertising bandwagon with a March 2015 commercial that shows in reverse time-lapse the path lettuce takes to get to your salad. “It’s not what your salad goes into, it’s what goes into your salad,” the slogan runs. What’s refreshing about this spot is that it’s not just about picturesquely picking plants—it shows the industrial context of food production and processing clearly and honestly.
The history of food advertising demonstrates what we value about our food. Vintage commercials from the 1950s and ’60s fetishize the processing of food rather than its provenance—promoting a new kind of canning procedure or novel mix of preserved fruit. Testimonials also abound. In the 1970s, an ad for Jones Dairy Farm once again underlined the provenance of its sausage’s ingredients, emphasizing “spices from India,” “sausage casing from New Zealand,” and “no artificial ingredients.” It was an era when “imported” was not a four-letter word.
Today, as we obsess about local farms and food miles, we have farm-vertising. The soft-focus videos, farmers market interviews, and carefully inscribed chalkboards at New American restaurants—it’s all just more marketing.