An anonymous marketing campaign claims that the Preakness' popular mascot, Kegasus, has gone missing. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun / May 16, 2011)

Wanted: new mascot for 137-year-old racing event. Must appeal to the young and Web-savvy. Social media experience required.

That's the premise of an anonymous marketing campaign unveiled this month to unseat the tweeting centaur Kegasus as the mascot of the Preakness Stakes infield party. The new candidates? A leprechaun and the Easter Bunny.

The marketing firm hired by the Maryland Jockey Club is presumably behind the campaign, coming as it does as the Preakness advertising season starts to get under way. But it's not taking credit.

"We've got nothing to do with this," said Jimmy Learned, president of Elevation Ltd., which is handling marketing for the Preakness for the third year.

Stealth campaigns like this one are increasingly commonplace as marketers seek to create viral buzz without leaving traces of their well-funded creators. The idea is that people respond better to a pitch when they don't know they're being marketed to. But marketing experts say that denying ownership of a marketing gimmick could seriously backfire when the real authors are revealed. People, it seems, don't like to be fooled.

The premise of the new campaign, which was unveiled Monday with a tongue-in-cheek news release, is that Kegasus has disappeared, and an "International Brotherhood of Mythical Creatures" is lobbying for a creature to take the centaur's place. Each character has its own Facebook profile and lobbying video.

The release has no authors or credits, and the listed phone number is to a fake voice mail.

Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said the Preakness advertising campaign hasn't been finalized. But the anonymous campaign fits in with the bold marketing approach organizers have taken in the past three years to lure young people back to Pimlico after a disastrous 2009.

There are some clues connecting this campaign to Elevation. It comes close on the heels of the announcement of Preakness' musical headliners; the promotional videos are professionally made, and look similar to those from last year's Kegasus campaign; and a hard-to-find image on the campaign's Facebook page links to Elevation.

Learned was coy when asked about the campaign's authorship. When presented with the Facebook link to Elevation, Learned said someone had hacked the firm's website. "You never know what these mythical creatures are capable of," he said.

Companies responsible for stealth campaigns never own up to them, and that's the point.

"When consumers realize they're being marketed to, they put up barriers," said Rebecca Hamilton, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland. "People are more likely to respond to advertising if it's like someone telling them a conversation."

In the past five years, thanks to the explosion of marketing channels online, anonymous campaigns have become widely used in the ad industry despite concerns about their methods, marketing experts say.

On television, such campaigns are mostly forbidden by the Federal Communications Commission, which requires marketers to note when testimonials are by actors, for instance. But with the advent of social media, Facebook, Twitter and You Tube have become a Wild West of so-called black-hat marketing practices.

On Facebook, especially, where users can create exaggerated or even fictional profiles with no one catching on, marketers have free rein.

"When you get into digital media, you live in this world where you feel you can be anonymous and you can get away with things," said Chris Harris, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School who specializes in digital marketing. "It's pretty widespread, in that a lot of marketers, in house as well as big marketing agencies, think they can try to pull something off. Because of all the new technology marketing channels available, there's a desire to want to go viral."

In 2002, mobile-phone manaufacturer Sony Ericsson hired actors in several cities to go up to people on the street and ask them to take a picture with the company's brand-new camera-phone. In 2006, the viral marketing firm Zipatoni started a fake blog to promote the new PlayStation Portable game console. Hamilton points to the company Bzzagent, which has paid its employees to give positive reviews of its clients' products on shopping sites like Amazon.

Perhaps best-known was "Lonelygirl15," a series of YouTube confessionals seen by millions. The titular character turned out to be an actress, and the people who videotaped her and placed the videos on YouTube were filmmakers who had been signed to Creative Artists Agency, a major talent agency.

While it's hard to estimate exactly how prevalent such practices are — a successful stealth campaign remains secret — marketers spend 15 percent of their budget on word-of-mouth, buzz and viral campaigns, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. Advertising Age estimated in 2006 that $100 million to $150 million a year is spent on this sort of marketing.

Though Learned said the latest campaign is not coming from Elevation, he added that stealth campaigns can be an effective way to harness the power of social media and stoke excitement among the prized "millennial" demographic.