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Less Tough Talk About Weed Killers, Message Shifts to Land Stewardship

March 17, 1991

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Some familiar faces are missing from agricultural chemical ads as farmers prepare for spring planting.

Gone is ″Muscle man,″ who used to knock down walls to demonstrate the weed-killing power of Banvel’s herbicide. Absent is the rogue ″Velvetleaf,″ who deflated truck tires and snipped telephone wires to prevent farmers from learning about Command’s herbicide.

Many chemical companies instead are focusing on the environment and portraying farmers as good stewards of the land. The movement, as seen through ads, is accelerating as consumers become more skittish about the safety of food and water and farmers become more conscious of their image.

″The farmer always has been sensitive about the way he is being portrayed,″ said Jeff Davis, who researches agricultural markets and attitudes. ″I think we have an evolving and greater recognition of that by the chemical companies.″

Davis, the chairman of Jefferson Davis Associates of Cedar Rapids, says agricultural advertising ″is in the process of evolving from an efficacy kind of message to a message that these materials are being used properly and the farmer has a concern over the proper use of these materials and is exercising his stewardship.″

Take for example, Du Pont Co. magazine ads for Accent, a weed killer used by corn farmers. In one ad, a woman pumps water for a little girl with cattle grazing in the background. Not a corn stalk, tractor or chemical sprayer is in sight.

″You already know what Accent does to shattercane. Now let us tell you what it doesn’t do,″ said the ad. ″For instance, did you know Accent doesn’t threaten your groundwater? Have you heard its extremely low rate doesn’t add to the chemical load of your soil?″

Doug Nail, manager of marketing communications for Du Pont’s farm products, said that ″as farmers get more environmentally concerned, I think we’re going to see more environmental advertising ... (and) where our product attributes have environmental significance we’re talking about them more.″

Du Pont and other chemical producers also are taking pains to avoid showing the chemicals being poured or sprayed in their ads. In large part, the shift reflects farmers’ fears that consumers think they are irresponsible polluters.

They are especially sensitive because of the success of the consumer boycott of apples that led Uniroyal Chemical Co. to withdraw its Alar growth hormone from the market in 1989 despite the lack of scientific evidence of a health threat.

Chemical dealer groups also are sensitive about consumer perceptions. The Iowa Fertilizer and Chemical Association adopted a resolution in 1988 asking manufacturers to quit using television ads.

Ciba-Geigy Corp. is a pioneer of the image ad for farm chemicals. It started the campaign for its Dual grass-control herbicide in the late 1970s, focusing on strong family traditions in farming, among other things. It’s not until the final seconds that a product is identified.

″What we’ve seen is a trend toward more education and information in advertising, less gimmicky things, less humor, less cartoons, more professional approaches,″ said G.D. Ragland, a spokesman for Ciba-Geigy’s ag division in Greensboro, N.C. ″It’s a serious business and it’s being treated more and more like one.″

Ciba-Geigy was forced to do a lot of explaining in its ads for atrazine, a popular, low-cost herbicide for controlling weeds that also is the most commonly detected herbicide in Iowa’s ground- and surface water. Through its Aatrex brand, Ciba-Geigy accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. sales of atrazine. With cooperation of Ciba-Geigy, state officials adopted restrictions on the use of atrazine in Iowa. The company also cooperated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in recommending the chemical be allowed for use only by certified applicators and by reducing the recommended rate of application by 25 percent.

Ciba-Geigy purchased a 12-page advertising supplement in some farm magazines during the winter to explain atrazine’s benefits in weed control and its proper use.

″If we are not recognized as being good stewards it’s going to hurt us,″ said Ragland.

Competitors have been quick to react to atrazine’s image problem.

Sandoz Crop Protection Corp. of Des Plaines, Ill., a unit of Sandoz Ltd. of Basel, Switzerland, dropped its ″Muscle man″ image for Banvel herbicide and adopted a softer look this year.

″Because of the atrazine situation, especially in Iowa, we saw some new opportunities for Banvel as an atrazine alternative,″ said Ken Rinkenberger, director of marketing services for Sandoz.

Instead of a muslebound farmer in aviator sunglasses, there is a farmer in silhouette reflectively chewing a piece of straw and a caption reading: ″The Changing of the Guard.″

FMC Corp., which makes Comand herbicide for controlling weeds and grasses in soybean fields, has retired its rogue ″Velvetleaf,″ has cut TV ads and is doing more promotional tie-ins with dealers.

″There’s such a proliferation of products in the soybean herbicide market, you almost need a prescription approach,″ said Neil DeStefano, communications manager at FMC.

Companies report the soft-sell is working.

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