There were many, many musical performances last night at the Grammy Awards, and I am not here to review them for you: TIME’s music critic, Claire Suddath, has that taken care of for you right here. But though there was a lot to comment on—Adele’s potent comeback from throat surgery, Nicki Minaj’s staging of an early-’70s horror film—the most enjoyable musical thing I saw last night was not a live performance at all. It was a Chipotle ad.
The two-minute spot, scored to a Willie Nelson of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” has been on YouTube for a while,* but this was its first national TV airing—and Chipotle’s first national TV ad in almost two decades of business. And yet right off the bat it was, with the possible but unlikely exception of Chrysler’s Clint Eastwood spot, better and more mesmerizing than any of the highly publicized ad extravaganzas from last week’s Super Bowl. (As well as, I have to say, more captivating and moving than Coldplay’s long, sleepy actual performance at the Grammys, which it ran immediately after.)
Like many a great commercial, “Back to the Start” is a journey, in this case both figuratively and literally. The action unfolds linearly in a continuous left-to-right flow on the screen, absorbing you in the simple, children’s show-like visuals and engaging you in figuring what its narrative is about. It starts with a farmer, and some pigs, a pastoral setting that becomes gradually more industrial and alienating, as it erects corrals, then sheds, then animal warehouses and a mechanized distribution system—the modern industrial-food chain. The grim scene plays out, and out, until the music crescendoes and the farmer decides to “go back to the start,” tearing down walls and letting his animals range free.
Now, I’m not a farmer, a scientist or a student of food business. I know in a general sense that the Mexican-food chain is an advocate for sustainable agriculture, despite having once been majority-owned by McDonald’s, not exactly a mom-and-pop back-to-the-land operation. I like the idea of knowing what’s in my food and of keeping it as unadulterated as possible, but I can’t personally judge whether Chipotle is the best advocate for it or if eating there is the Earth-friendliest use of my burrito dollar. (The ad ends by inviting viewers to buy Nelson’s single from iTunes to support the cause.)
Either way, though, it’s pretty remarkable to see such an eloquent-without-being-strident argument questioning the way our food system is set up being made, in prime time, by a big fast-food (or “fast casual”) company. (The Chrysler parallel here is interesting; that was another commercial sport by a corporation than made a social-political argument more powerfully than most actual political ads do.) I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a short film by any advocacy group that was as well-made, well-argued or emotionally on point. And whatever the food politics of the issue, this was just a fantastic two minutes of TV, less like a commercial than an outstanding music video, the images both wholesome and unsettling, Nelson’s lonesome vocal managing to take us from plaintive to hopeful inside a commercial break.
I’m not sure I’m actually any likelier to eat at Chipotle after seeing this, though this kind of commercial, if it works, probably works more on the level of subtly boosting the viewer’s image of the food chain, not inducing a carnitas craving. One way or another, though, I’ll definitely take seconds on this ad.
* Some commenters on Twitter wonder if the spot can qualify as a “best ad of 2012,” having been online (and shown in movie theaters) last year. I’m comparing TV ads, so it works for me, but YMMV. Besides, if the Grammys can call Bon Iver the “best new artist” in February 2012, I’m going to consider this fair game.