Monsanto Wants You to Know How Much It Hearts Farmers

February 14, 2013 | 11:06 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

It’s Valentine’s Day, and love is in the air. The President loves the First Lady’s bangs. Grammy-winner Kelly Clarkson loves fellow winner Miguel (now that she knows who he is). Babies (apparently) love Beyoncé.

And the Monsanto Company, the world’s largest seed and agrichemical seller, is making sure we all know how much they love American farmers.

As an apparent offshoot of the ad campaign I wrote about last year, in which the company made claims for its products’ sustainability that UCS has since rebutted, Monsanto has lately engaged in a “softer” PR strategy. On radio, on tv, and on the web, they are simply singing the praises of the hard-working American farmer. (In fact, until the Dodge pickup made its appearance in the “God Made a Farmer” Superbowl ad, I assumed Monsanto was behind the now much-parodied piece.)

CC image courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Why all the farmer love from the agribiz giant? Monsanto seems to be trying to burnish its image by allying itself with a beloved American icon, while steering clear of outright claims that can be challenged with data.

Who Loves Monsanto? Lobbyists and Ad Agencies Do!

A year ago, UCS took Monsanto to task for its misleading greenwashing campaign with our online feature, “Eight Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture.” For Way #6, we detailed the millions Monsanto spends on lobbying and PR to paint their products as essential to agriculture.

This week, we updated our analysis of the company’s efforts to sway decision-makers and the public. As we report, Monsanto spent $87 million on advertising in 2012. (Remarkably, that’s down from a high of $120 million in 2010.) The company also spent nearly $6 million in 2012 lobbying Congress for favorable farm policies, including provisions in a new Farm Bill that Congress has yet to pass.

And Monsanto is finding other ways to get its message out. In January, CEO Hugh Grant granted a fluffy interview to the Wall Street Journal that included this exchange:

WSJ: About three years ago the company was engulfed by negative attention, including falling profit, concern about seed performance and a farmer revolt over pricing. How did you turn the situation around?

Mr. Grant: We got back to the basics of reconnecting with our customers. We focused on consistency. We became predictable with our pricing, we became consistent in our messaging, and we’ve been tracking that throughout the three-year period. It’s never done. We’ve mended a lot of fences, and we’ve turned things around.

And just last week, the company launched a new online portal to assemble favorable news coverage and propaganda. (From there, you can get to this info-graphic, “Top 10 Best Parts of Being a Farmer,” sure to give you the warm fuzzies!)

Not All Roses and Chocolates

While much of Monsanto’s public messaging now reads like a love letter to farmers, last fall the company dropped the sweet talk and engaged in an uglier ad campaign as part of the effort to beat back California’s Proposition 37. This voter initiative would have required that food products containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled as such. Early in the campaign, the measure appeared to have broad support from voters. Then Monsanto stepped in, with scary messages indicating that labeling would mean huge costs for consumers. (My colleague Doug Gurian-Sherman pulled that argument apart here.)

As we noted, the company’s $8.1 million was the single largest contribution to the effort to defeat Prop. 37. But despite the spending spree, Prop. 37 lost by just 3 percent of the statewide vote. And Monsanto had better be prepared to fire up the scary ad music again and again, as more state-based labeling campaigns keep cropping up, including in the company’s own backyard. It could really take a toll on their kinder, gentler image.

Wall Street Feels the Love

Is Monsanto’s new charm offensive working? It’s hard to tell, though the company’s profits and sales continue to rise. And it certainly seems that the investor community has fallen hard. As part of its 2013 investing outlook, The Motley Fool called Monsanto “one of the hottest companies around from an operational standpoint.” And just last week, The Street reiterated its “buy” recommendation for the company’s stock.

As a colleague of mine observed, while Monsanto is sending Valentines to farmers, it’s Wall Street that’s really getting the action.


Happy Valentine’s Day!