A good word from friends and supporters continues to be a key marketing tool at the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission.

The commission has worked a multimedia marketing campaign with the help of several longtime allies, including fitness expert Denise Austin, Olympic cyclist Kristin Armstrong and former “Gilligan’s Island” star Dawn Wells.

“I think we’re going to see a really strong start to 2010,” said Frank Muir, the commission’s chief executive officer.

While many in the industry are noting that big volumes of potatoes are leading to lower prices, the commission is hoping to turn that to its advantage, Muir said.

“Our shipments are very strong,” he said.

And, he added, they’ve been getting stronger.

“If you look at potato consumption at retail, we’ve had three quarters in a row where almost double-digit increases on pounds,” he said.

“Consumers are buying potatoes. They’re eating them more than last year. So, the foundation of the potato category is actually very healthy.”

He pointed to ACNielsen data that showed potatoes were the highest-growing category in fresh produce.

“I keep saying prices need to come up. Obviously, we have no control over prices,” Muir said.

“But I think everybody would agree they are lower than they’re warranted, especially when you consider consumption is going up. I really do think our marketing programs are working — it’s just that prices got too aggressive earlier this year.”

It’s not good when prices jump one way or the other, Muir said.

“I think retail and foodservice operators would like to see more stability in pricing,” he said. “It’s more difficult to manage menus and feature ads when prices are unstable.”

Wells, a longtime spokeswoman for Idaho potatoes, has a video on how to peel a potato without a peeler that has gotten 6.5 million viewings, Muir said.

Muir acknowledged it’s hard to quantify how videos and other social media translate to potato sales. But, he says, it’s worth the effort.

“The social media are all part of the program,” he said. “We’re on YouTube. We have several videos. Our most recent is Farmer Poetry, an emotional connection to a potato farmer. That plays off what’s popularly known as ‘Cowboy Poetry.’”

Facebook and Twitter also are part of the Idaho program, Muir said.

“We also recently launched a sweepstakes contest on the Internet targeted to 7 year olds and older, a 90-second animated video,” he said.

“We set this video to schools all across the country to let them know that every time one of their students participates, they can use it in their classrooms.”

Fourteen-year-old Reid Wiebler of Davenport, Iowa, recently won $10,000 in a drawing connected to that educational video. Half the prize went to Wiebler and half to his school, Assumption High School.

Last year, the commission’s Potato Lovers Month attracted more than 2,000 entries. Muir said this year likely would be even bigger.

Then, there are numerous recipe contests, advertising blitzes on cable and network TV stations and spots on Art Ginsburg’s “Mr. Food” and professional chef Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares.”

The commission also has worked with chef Wolfgang Puck for the last three years in his American Wine and Food Festival, which last year raised about $1 million for Meals on Wheels.

Muir said nearly 90% of the commission’s assessments goes into some type of marketing effort.

“Twelve million dollars goes into advertising, publicity, trade programs and research and $1 million to research,” he said.