"History has shown some are great," he said. "That's the beauty of the evolving media of communications. Depending on what your objectives are, stealth campaigns are inspired and intuitive. As communicators, you have to be open to a myriad opportunities."

Provocative advertising and music appealing to young people have become increasingly important ways for the Jockey Club to sell tickets to the Preakness, which has seen a drop in attendance since setting a record in 2008.

Chuckas credits the provocative "Get Your Preak On" and Kegasus campaigns with bringing excitement and higher attendance to the events in the past two years — more than 107,000 people attended last year, up from the year before, and markedly up from the low of 78,000 in 2009, the year the Jockey Club started barring infield attendees from bringing their own alcohol.

Beyond bold marketing, organizers have already signaled they want to court attention this year by selecting headliner Wiz Khalifa, who has a penchant for rapping about marijuana.

Washington-based Elevation, which has been in charge of the Preakness' marketing for the last three years, has pursued the racing event's traditional audience with advertising highlighting the Preakness' storied history and has launched racier campaigns — "Get Your Preak On," Kegasus — aimed at young people that have offended more conservative racing fans.

Learned defended the approach, saying his firm has been able to slowly chip away at the infield's reputation as the site of drunken debauchery.

"We don't apologize for anything," he said. "I have great pride in Kegasus. ... Tom Chuckas understands that what the sport itself needs is an infusion of young blood."

Still, marketing experts says stealth campaigns cross ethical lines. They suggest owning up to a campaign because the risks of not doing so outnumber the benefits.

"While you may think you're pulling one over on everybody, there is just as a great a risk that it'll do damage and people will take great pride in exposing you," said Hopkins' Harris.

When consumers discovered that the PlayStation Portable blog created by Zipatoni was a fake, they reacted angrily.

"Consumers know that marketing agents are trying to persuade them, but they want to know where it's coming from," UM's Hamilton said.

For legacy brands like the Preakness Stakes, the risk is doubled because people associate them with tradition and expect sincerity, some advertising experts say.

More effective viral campaigns are upfront about their sponsorship — like the Old Spice commercials — and succeed because of their creativity, Harris said. Or they have an interactive component, such as a coupon that might be passed on. When a campaign starts out on a false premise, it risks becoming associated with deceit.

"In general, people catch on, and they'll say, 'They're not being honest with me,'" Harris said. "We've all become so cynical. There's so much misinformation out there, people have a very bitter reaction to feeling like they're being scammed."

Learned said he is still hard at work on a campaign for the Preakness and will present it to the Jockey Club in two weeks. The official unveiling is set for later in March.

Asked if he was concerned about a controversy similar to the Zipatoni blog, he said he wasn't worried.

"The risk is not creating controversy but creating vanilla work," he said.

erik.maza@baltsun.com

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