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Courting lost infield fans, Preakness takes a risk with risqué ads

Last year, Preakness partiers deserted the infield in droves. This year, Pimlico wants them back — and isn't afraid to raise a few eyebrows to do it.

The Maryland Jockey Club is turning to a controversial marketing campaign built around the phrase "Get Your Preak On." The sexually suggestive slogan has been plastered on billboards and bus stops across the city, and featured on TV and radio stations and online.

In one radio commercial, a nerdy young volunteer at a retirement home gushes about getting his "Preak" on with an elderly woman.

"How could I resist, especially considering this might be her last chance," he says. "I was a little concerned with how her hip would hold up, knowing we'd be at it all day long."

Although Preakness' infield has long had a raunchy reputation, the race overall — the second jewel in the Triple Crown — is one of Maryland's most celebrated events. For Del. Pat McDonough, a Republican lawmaker who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, this ad campaign goes too far.

"It's creating an image and a brand that's offensive and rude," McDonough said. "Is this the image of the Preakness and Maryland we want to have? Whoever designed this ad should go looking for a job."

But so far, the campaign seems to be serving its purpose. Infield ticket sales are up 5 percent compared to this time in 2008 — the last year patrons could bring their own beer and wine to the infield — according to Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas.

"I think this is cutting-edge," Chuckas said. "It reaches the demographic we're trying to reach. … It gets them energized and involved."

Conceived by Washington-based advertising agency Elevation, the campaign is in concert with a new all-you-can-drink alcohol policy, which gives patrons the option of paying $20 for 16-ounce mugs of beer with unlimited refills. The price of admission for the infield will be $40 — $10 less than last year — and individual beers will go from $3.50 to $3.

The "Get Your Preak On" website uses social marketing to encourage visitors to design their own Preakness poster using a web cam and a design program. It's been steadily growing in popularity since the campaign started several weeks ago, according to Mike Marting, Elevation's creative director. Last week, the site received 62,000 page views.

"We wanted to create some buzz around the event," Marting said "You can expect to have people come out and be opposed to this kind of language and message. We're fine with that."

One such critic is Jeff Millman, chief creative officer for the Baltimore-based ad agency GKV. Millman, who didn't vie for the Preakness account, thinks the "Get Your Preak On" ads insult the intelligence of the average Preakness infielder. Young people don't have to be pandered to, he said.

"I think it's lame and embarrassing," Millman said. "It's just, ‘Hey, look at us, we're cool people telling you you're cool and you should come to our cool event.' … You're not cool by saying you're cool."

When Miles Needer, a 28-year-old contractor who lives in Hampden, first saw one of the TV commercials, he thought it was outright stupid.

"It's staggeringly dumb," he said. "If you're going to advertise the Preakness, convince me there's still a party there. Referencing a nine-year-old Missy Elliott song is not going to do that."

The response to the ads isn't all negative. Jamie Aycock, a 36-year-old engineer who lives in Columbia, reveled in the raunchiness of "Get Your Preak On."

"They're funny as hell," Aycock said. "That's what the infield's always been about — lowbrow humor, from drunken contests to people racing on top Porta-Pots. We're not talking about Masterpiece Theater here. It's good, blue-collar fun."

Last year, when the Jockey Club banned outside beverages, attendance dropped nearly 35,000, to about 77,000. Despite the addition of live music, a bikini contest and volleyball game, the infield had only a fraction of its storied debauchery. With the ad campaign, the new beer policy and different bands, the Jockey Club is aiming to cut its losses in half. This year, organizers booked rock group O.A.R. and Grammy Award-winning country act Zac Brown Band — two acts they hope will court a larger infield crowd. And people are talking about the ads, Chuckas said, which means "Get Your Preak On" is working.

"People like the campaign and people don't," Chuckas said. "But I will tell you one thing — everyone has an opinion and everyone's noticed it. And after all, isn't that what advertising and marketing is all about?"

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