In the 1990s, the U.S. dairy industry launched a memorable ad campaign with the question, “Got Milk?” that became iconic. Now, agricultural groups promoting U.S. farming are trying to replicate that success by leveraging social media platforms to connect with a new generation of consumers.
The latest advertisements feature women marathoners endorsing chocolate milk’s recovery drink benefits on TikTok, and cattle ranchers sharing their land with rock climbers on Instagram. A young woman dancing to pop tunes expresses surprise at the mood-boosting powers of pork.
However, the emergence of these new social media campaigns has reignited longstanding concerns about the organizations behind them – promotional groups managed by government-appointed boards, funded by hundreds of millions in government-mandated fees on farmers, and overseen by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
These programs, known as “checkoff programs,” have faced criticism for issues related to accountability, efficacy, and concerns about the federal government’s role in promoting specific agricultural products.
Watchdog groups and some farmers argue that checkoff programs are essentially government-funded lobbying arms that primarily favor industrial agriculture and neglect the interests of small farmers. Additionally, critics contend that these programs often convey messages that contradict the U.S. government’s nutritional and environmental goals.
As these concerns gain traction, attention is turning to the next farm bill, expected later this year, as a potential avenue for addressing the activities of checkoff programs. A bipartisan bill from Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) proposes mandatory audits and a prohibition on conflicts of interest.
Supporters of the checkoff programs argue that they fulfill their mission by boosting sales, funding research on the benefits of their products, and countering misinformation.
For example, the National Pork Board defends its outreach to young people through TikTok, stating that targeting this demographic is crucial for the industry’s long-term viability.
The dairy processor checkoff has also embraced social media, using platforms like Instagram and TikTok to reach specific demographics, including women marathoners, athletes, and young families. However, the checkoff programs’ substantial spending and health-related claims in their ads have raised concerns among advertising watchdogs.
Critics are pushing for more transparency and oversight of checkoff programs, aiming to address issues related to accountability and ensure that the programs align with broader national goals. However, defenders argue that these programs help farmers pool resources for advertising campaigns and research that benefit the industry as a whole.
As the debate continues, the role of checkoff programs in shaping public perceptions of agricultural products and influencing consumer choices remains a significant point of contention. The outcome of discussions around the farm bill will likely shape the future direction and accountability of these promotional efforts.