Thursday, May 13, 2010
Truth in advertising
By Pat Forde ESPN.com
BALTIMORE -- If you cock an ear toward this town, you'll hear some strident tut-tutting about the Maryland Jockey Club's new ad campaign designed to inflate interest in the Preakness.
"Get Your Preak On," is the slogan. It's a play on Missy Elliott's song of nearly the same name, and the attending billboards and radio spots are full of wink-wink sexual double entendres. It is designed to appeal to perhaps the more base instincts of the 18-34 demographic, the consumers thoroughbred racing needs most.
And some folks are outraged.
"Seriously, the whole 'Get Your Preak On' campaign has to be one of the most pathetic marketing ploys ever devised," harrumphed Baltimore Sun metro columnist Kevin Cowherd.
Which I find absolutely hilarious.
A semi-raunchy ad campaign is beneath the dignity of the Preakness? For real?
It is, in fact, that rarest of all marketing strategies: truth in advertising. Far from pathetic, it's perfect.
The Preakness and its host track, Pimlico Race Course, are about as classy as a neck tattoo. Don't get me wrong -- it can be a fun event, and a lot of the employees work very hard, and they generally stage a great race. But if you believe the Preakness is a highbrow endeavor, you also believe "Jersey Shore" is on par with the great PBS documentaries.
If the Triple Crown were a cocktail circuit, the Preakness would be the kegger that ends in a fistfight and a visit from the cops.
The Kentucky Derby has an abundance of elegance -- and a bunch of drunks behaving badly. The Belmont Stakes has a fair amount of elegance -- and a bunch of drunks behaving badly. The Preakness has a bunch of drunks behaving badly -- and just enough elegance to raise it a step above NASCAR.
Pimlico is a dump, pure and simple. It relies on a huge Preakness race card and a huge Preakness crowd to keep it afloat all year.
On my first visit there, 20 years ago on a non-Preakness race day, there was a stray cat dragging a piece of pizza through the deserted grandstand. There were about 50 people on the frontstretch apron that day, many of them likely degenerate gamblers.
On subsequent visits I have seen a man jump onto the track and try to punch an onrushing horse during a race on the Preakness undercard; a power outage that paralyzed the grandstand Preakness day; and a shyster pseudo-public relations woman in towering heels and a minidress, unaffiliated with the track, deploying mounted police when Barbaro was injured in 2006 -- and the cops listened to her.
That last scene occurred at the stakes barn, where the track houses its Preakness horses. It's a pretty spot, meticulously maintained. Meanwhile, every other barn on the premises looks like an equine tenement.
But the lasting image from nine previous Preaknesses is this: thousands of people partying as if the last beer on Earth might be sold at any second. The Churchill Downs infield on Derby day can be a feral place, but the Pimlico infield on Preakness day has always seemed even more unhinged.
The biggest reason for that was the long-standing policy of letting patrons bring in their own beer. In bulk. For years, neighborhood boys made a tidy profit by offering to bicycle beer by the case to the infield for partiers who couldn't carry it all.
The BYOB policy led to a Preakness tradition: the running of the Porta-Johns. Well-oiled imbeciles would scamper/stagger along the tops of a row of toilets while souses on all sides fired full beer cans at them. It's an activity not believed to be found in the Sport of Kings racing manual.
In an attempt to cut down on 12-ounce projectile assault, Pimlico made the fateful decision last year to ban fans from bringing in their own beer. The customer backlash showed that the Preakness is, indeed, not about the horses and all about the party: attendance plummeted to 77,000, a drop of 35,000 from the previous year.
The MJC regrouped without relenting. It went to Plan B, which can be described thusly: You still can't bring your own beer, but we definitely want you to come get drunk. So infield admission was discounted $10, and the track will sell $20 all-you-can-drink beer mugs -- which, presumably, cannot maim a toilet runner.
And it approved the infamous ad campaign that appeals to every Preakness goer's inner freakness.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Preakness ticket sales are up over recent years, and Web traffic to the "Get Your Preak On" site has been significant. Whether that's the result of the modified beer policy or the ad campaign is anyone's guess -- most likely, it's a combination.
Good for the track. Good for the people. Let them come get their Preak on without pretending to be something they're not. Neck tattoos for everyone.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.