Eyebrows raise after state pays Andrew Zimmern $57,500 to hype Minnesota

'Bizarre Foods' host Andrew Zimmern has been Minnesota's celebrity promoter on Twitter, and he hasn't come cheap.

'Bizarre Foods' host Andrew Zimmern has been Minnesota's celebrity promoter on Twitter, and he hasn't come cheap. Explore Minnesota, Twitter

Over the past year, you might have seen Bizarre Foods host and celebrity chef/restauranteur Andrew Zimmern tweet a photo of himself doing something fun with the caption #OnlyinMN. It turns out, the state paid him $57,500 to do it.

It’s all part of a marketing campaign to entice tourists to spend their money here, featuring succulent restaurant entrees, fishing trips, and other Minnesotan pastimes. Think of it as the social media equivalent of Shaq’s cheerfully bizarre Gold Bond commercials.

But it does have some folks upset. In a Star Tribune interview, Minnesota Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) characterized the campaign as “using poor people’s tax-extracted money to make rich people richer.”

Though, in all fairness, some of the rancor has to do with the fact that Zimmern's personal politics are fairly liberal. Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) griped about that in particular on Twitter.

So did the Minnesota House Republicans account.

Maybe $57,500 for some social media marketing does seem excessive, but Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism branch, is of the opinion that it’s just sticking with the times.

“Working with influencers is going to be a $10 billion industry by 2020,” spokesperson Erica Wacker says. “Those posts outperform Explore Minnesota’s posts by 200 percent.”

Wacker says Zimmern was selected because he’s always been a good hype man for his home state. (With the exception, of course, of his famously careless comments about Midwestern Chinese food last year.)

And besides, he has over a million Twitter followers from all over the world. They have no reason to pay attention to Explore Minnesota, but they’re totally down to hear about juicy porterhouses and baseball games from their favorite bug-eating celebrity. Explore’s data shows his posts earned Minnesota tourism billions of impressions.

“It’s a great way to tell you story through another person’s voice, who may seem more authentic,” Wacker says.

Explore hasn’t just been paying Zimmern to tweet. This campaign launched back in 2018 with Facebook Live sessions, Instagram stories, and public appearances. Its main thrust was a recipe contest devised with the help of Zimmern. The winner – a woman from New Ulm -- got to show off her sauerkraut and potato dumpling recipe with the celebrity chef on the Jason Show. (Zimmern didn’t respond to interview requests.)

Wacker says they don’t have any plans right now to contract with another big name. Instead, they’re reaching out to “micro-influencers” – bloggers and tweeters with moderate followings, who’d be willing to use an #onlyinmn hashtag for anything between a few thousand dollars and a free park pass.