MY LAST NERVE: Agriculture Department Pays Millions to Advertising Firm

October 21, 2016

Inside Insight

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By PHILLIP CEASE

Agriculture Department Pays Millions to Advertising Firm - Certified SC Grown

Why does the agriculture industry get its own taxpayer-supported ad campaign?

The Certified SC Grown program, run by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, is “the most comprehensive resource for locally sourced SC produce, specialty crops and products,” – so says its website. In short, it’s a state sponsored advertising campaign for South Carolina farmers and goods producers.

It was started in 2007 and it shows no sign of slowing down or shrinking.

At one point during this almost decade-long ad campaign, Hugh Weathers, the agriculture commissioner, appeared in a television spot ostensibly promoting the program. In essence, though, the ad appeared to be a campaign commercial. After stating his name and his job title, Agriculture Commissioner Weathers encouraged the viewer to buy South Carolina-produced foodstuffs.

Now, most Americans will likely see the propriety of a president or governor appearing on television for certain highly important occasions – a war, a hurricane, or even a momentous anniversary. Surely, though, there is no occasion on which South Carolinians should be subjected to taxpayer-supported advertisements featuring the state Commissioner of Agriculture.

No matter. The campaign goes on. A few months ago, in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Pokémon Go (a cell phone game that uses popular locations as bases), Certified SC Grown planned an event that flopped. A week before the event, all of the game’s “bases” disappeared – leaving zero reasons for any Pokémon Go-ers to attend the event. Despite the lack of participants, reports say that the event still distributed 400 SC Grown peaches.

Chernoff Newman, a Columbia public relations and advertising firm, was responsible for planning this Pokémon peach calamity. The firm, which lists several state agencies and institutions as clients, was paid over $1 million in 2015 for the Certified SC Grown campaign. Total spending from the Department of Agriculture to Chernoff Newman was closer to $2 million.

What’s the total price tag for these commercials, stickers and other tchotchkes? Last year the Department of Agriculture requested $3.5 million for the Certified SC program, noting that for every $1 the state invested, private industry contributes $8.

If this program is so valuable to farmers – which, based on the $1 to $8 ratio, it is – then why not ask them to fund the whole thing?

Phillip Cease is director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council