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To Attract Young Crowd, Ad Campaign Gets a Bit ‘Preaky’

BALTIMORE - Whether you find it edgy or over the top, the Preakness has a new ad campaign aimed at bringing back young fans: "Get Your Preak On."

Last year, with a new rule banning fans from bringing their own beer or other alcohol onto the Pimlico infield, the second leg of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown saw attendance drop to 77,850 after easily topping 100,000 for eight consecutive years.

The slogan for Saturday's race is a twist on the saying "Get your freak on." One translation is from hip-hop artist Missy Elliot's song about dancing: Get Ur Freak On. The more risque interpretation is sexual. There is even a song out based on the slogan.

To the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the Preakness, it's a well-aimed marketing ploy.

"The Jockey Club and racing have been criticized for many years that their advertising and marketing campaigns are same old, same old, nothing exciting," MJC President Tom Chuckas said Tuesday.

"The other thing we've been criticized for is when we do market, we don't target a younger demographic. In looking at this campaign, we basically wanted to target 21- to 35-year-olds. So we had to speak their language."

Chuckas has received scant protest - a phone call and two e-mails - saying the campaign is "too edgy, too risque" and "debasing" to the Preakness.

This week, Baltimore Sun sports columnist Kevin Cowherd wrote that the campaign goes beyond poor taste. "It shows no taste at all," wrote Cowherd, who called it "one of the most pathetic marketing ploys ever devised."

Chuckas: "At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to an opinion. . . . But I can tell you, it's generated . . . a lot of interest for the Preakness."

The campaign has been waged on MTV, VH1 and ESPN. Variations appear on billboards and bus stop signs. The campaign was developed by Elevation, a Washington, D.C., ad agency.

"It's simply an invitation to join the party," Elevation creative director Mike Martin says in a Maryland Jockey Club news release.

The Preakness has taken other steps to bring back a big crowd:

- Infield tickets have been reduced to $50 on race day and $40 in advance, down from $60 and $50.

- Pay $20 to join the infield Mug Club and you get a souvenir cup, a wristband and beer refills at no further cost. Chuckas said those who don't drink "responsibly" will be cut off.

He said behavior was one reason the Preakness ended its bring-your-own policy. "We had some concerns about the well-being of our guests in the infield, plus the horses and the jockeys on the racetrack," Chuckas said.

In 1999, a fan ran onto the track during a preliminary race and tried to slug two horses as they galloped by.

Chuckas also cited the business side: "If you go across the country to a multitude of events . . . no venue just allows you to bring in whatever you want."

Chuckas said the attendance drop was expected last year, partly because of the economy but mainly due to the end of the BYOB policy. "We believed it would take two years to get back to those (100,000-plus) levels," he said. "I think we'll be close to 100,000 this year."

Last year, Magna Entertainment, owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, went bankrupt. Last week, it was announced Penn National Gaming and MI Developments (parent of Magna) have agreed to a joint venture to operate the Jockey Club and its tracks. The Maryland Racing Commission must approve.

In the meantime, the Preakness is calling young fans. Chuckas, 55, who'd been unfamiliar with "getting your freak on," bounced the idea off his 20-something staffers. "That's the market I'm trying to target," he said.

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