By Victor Zast
Why has Thoroughbred racing decided to put its future into the hands of a public relations agency?

Is it because the available funds for running an effective ad campaign haven't materialized? Could it be that the people who control the purse strings are beginning to comprehend the positive effects of Seabiscuit and Funny Cide and Smarty Jones? Are the critics of this change in marketing direction right when they warn that Thoroughbred racing no longer appeals to the subscribers of newspapers and magazines, and that with each passing day, there are fewer writers devoted to the coverage of the sport?

It was the beginning of the end for advertising when Lori Petty's face first appeared on television screens in the good old days of "Go Baby Go." In an effort to tempt the curiosity of people outside the established audience, Petty was seen as the kind of spokesperson most of the Medicis wouldn't invite to Florence, much less to the Palio in Siena. She was a gaunt, young woman with a harsh haircut, and she bubbled with chutzpah when her horse won. Remember her "Pay the lady" ad-lib?

In selecting Petty, the agency, Merkley Newman Harty of Atlanta, wanted someone other than a " 'Baywatch' chick or the girl next door," said Steve Bowen, director of business development. Spurning convention, he proclaimed, "That's a great way to go out of business--keep doing what doesn't work."

But industry investors didn't see it that way, and they forced a change. Petty's brief, ill-fated stay on the screen, albeit effective in establishing a slogan, died with the puzzling emergence of Rip Torn as her replacement. Torn was a male, old, and well-fed--the kind of core audience oddball you see every day at the track. He was quirky and dark. And, after an initial wave of acceptance by the critics, he, too, was ripped and torn into shreds.

Eventually, as expected, the television effort settled into slo-mo shots of clumps of dirt flying from horses' hooves and well-scrubbed suburbanites clutching each other and their winning tickets. It was a co-op campaign in the image of the Hallmark card messages that the agency warned against.

Well, now comes another chance to define Thoroughbred racing, and it's anybody's guess what kind of public relations program will evolve. Delivering a message is tricky in the age of spin, and one school of thought is that it doesn't matter what's said, but how often you say it. The school on the other side of the argument preaches that image is a reflection of the messages that accumulate, and that getting the images right means more than how many are sent.

Modern media strategy suggests that the most effective delivery of message is masked by the intelligent "framing" of it. So when Wieden & Kennedy, the agency for Sharp, built a storefront space in Soho where up-and-coming artists can showcase their work on Aquos widescreen televisions, the message is that only Aquos is sharp enough to display all the visual elements of the art. Go ahead, buy a Sony, stupid, is the subliminal message. But be prepared to sacrifice your claim to be hip.

Likewise, when Crispin Porter Bogusky, the Miami shop for Burger King, created www.subservientchicken.com, an interactive Web site that allows computer surfers to command a man in a chicken suit to do things on demand, the message is really "have it your way."

Now, if Lori Petty was a problem for racing's establishment, imagine what a subservient chicken would represent. Just what kind of public relations message will racing put out? Are we in for wire service re-writes or some mind-bending "stuff" that intrigues new users? At least some fingers are crossed it's the latter. There's a general awareness that racing exists. It's just that it isn't "cool" to be a part of it.

It's time to stop preaching to the choir and to let news of the spending reach the sponsors in some way other than showing them press clips. The biggest mistake would be for the public relations practitioners to churn out stories about jockeys and great races run. It's time for a showroom in Soho or a subservient chicken. It's time to "pay the lady."

VICTOR ZAST is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.

Most Popular Stories