ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
We've heard of politicians and celebrities trying to remake their public image, but what about a nut? If you've watched TV in the last few months, you've probably noticed a raft of snappy ads for the pistachio. They're part of a new campaign launched by Paramount Farms. The company packages and sells the majority of American-grown pistachios and it says it's trying to make the little green nuts hip.
As Sasha Khokha of member station of KQED reports, they've also chosen a controversial spokesperson.
SASHA KHOKHA: Pistachios have had something of an image problem lately. A salmonella scare last year pushed sales down by more than half. So it may come as something of a surprise that a new ad to shore up the pistachio industry features someone who's had an image problem himself.
(Soundbite of TV Ad)
Unidentified Group: Levi, Levi...
KHOKHA: Levi Johnston, teen father, Playgirl model and infamous outcast of the Sarah Palin family. In the ad, he wears a tight green Alaska T-shirt as he heads toward the flashing cameras of the paparazzi. Flanked by his real-life bodyguard, he stops and cracks open a pistachio.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Man: Now Levi Johnston does it with protection.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: Wonderful pistachios. Get crackin'.
KHOKHA: The woman who conceived the ads, Lynda Resnick, is also known as the pom queen for her innovative branding of pomegranate juice. She and her husband, Stewart Resnick, are Beverly Hills billionaires who own the flower delivery service Teleflora, Fiji Water and agribusiness giant Paramount Farms. Their nuts were not contaminated with salmonella, but they felt the sting of last year's recall anyway.
Ms. LYNDA RESNICK (Business Owner, Paramount Farms): We felt, because we control 60 percent of the pistachios in America through Paramount Farms, that we would make an investment in branding pistachios.
KHOKHA: When Resnick's in-house marketing team came up with the get crackin' slogan for their brand called Wonderful Pistachios, Levi Johnston was at the top of her wish list.
Ms. RESNICK: And I felt that we could elevate the stickiness of the campaign and get a lot of PR if we used people that were known, but maybe not that expensive, if you know what I mean.
KHOKHA: Johnston may not be expensive, but he does have a checkered past.
Mr. KEVIN HERMAN (Pistachio Farmer): May not be my first choice for spokesperson.
KHOKHA: That's pistachio grower Kevin Herman.
Mr. HERMAN: I'm a farmer. I'm not really qualified to say who should be doing those commercials.
KHOKHA: Like many farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley, Herman sells most of his pistachios to Paramount Farms. Every year, farmers here are yanking out less productive crops and plant thousands of acres of pistachios, instead.
(Soundbite of moving train)
KHOKHA: Herman waits for a train to pass, and then pulls in to check on his pistachio orchard next to the tracks. California has had some big storms recently, and the dirt roads are slippery.
Mr. HERMAN: Yeah, it's been raining good.
KHOKHA: As he surveys rows of wet trees from his Land Rover, Herman says he's glad the ads tout the health benefits of pistachios, and frankly, they're doing something he doesn't have the time or money to do.
Mr. HERMAN: It's difficult for me to get the word out. I can send out a press release, but who's going to pay any attention to it?
KHOKHA: But will those ads generate positive attention? Aimee Drolet, a professor of marketing at UCLA, thinks the Johnston ads could backfire.
Professor AIMEE DROLET (Marketing, University of California, Los Angeles): The fact that he was involved with Bristol Palin and they had a child - you know, what he's suggesting in the ad is somehow that was due to a failure of protection, say, for example, wearing a condom. And that, again, doesn't really reinforce the view that pistachio-eating is something safe.
KHOKHA: Other ads in the campaign include a dominatrix, a mobster and an Olympic swimmer cracking open a pistachio. And sales are going up, although it's hard to tell whether that's because of a natural rebound after the salmonella scare. Paramount Farms claims the ads are the reason, and says sales of its brand Wonderful Pistachios have jumped 244 percent since the campaign launched in October. In fact, they say, their small pistachio snack packs have beat out peanuts over the last few months.
For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.
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