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Ocean City holds off on ad; wary of mixing politics, marketing

(March 22, 2013) Despite an endorsement of its witty, sardonic appeal, the Town of Ocean City appears to be holding off on one of its spring advertising campaigns for fear that the tongue-in-cheek reference to legislative policy could be misperceived in Annapolis.

During last week’s inaugural meeting of the city’s Tourism Commission, Andy Malis, president of MGH Advertising, the city’s contracted marketing firm, presented what he described as a “quickie advertising campaign” to generate early-spring buzz for the resort.

The campaign, to be run in newspapers in Maryland’s metropolitan core, references a bill in the state legislature that would establish a committee to study changing Maryland’s school calendar to allow county school districts to start after Labor Day.

Filed by Sen. Jim Mathias, the bill is currently ready for its third reading and is likely to see final action before Monday.

“At this point, all signals seem to be green,” Mathias said this week.

MGH’s ad is a tongue-in-cheek “call for action” to Maryland students, warning them that “the government is stealing your fun” by necessitating earlier start dates that would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago.

The ad also warns students of the “dangers of Skee-ball deprivation,” and requests that they ask their parents to respond to an online survey, which queries if they would support a longer summer for their children or whether they “hate fun.”

“We’ve been able to do some unusual campaigns to get massive amounts of attention [in the past],” Malis said. “These campaigns were fairly low-cost, as this would be, for the amount of publicity they garner.”

Previously off-center print campaigns by MGH have included an “evacuation route” for “refugees” to Ocean City’s “cicada-free zone,” as well as a farcical public service announcement by Mayor Rick Meehan for vacationers to visit the resort “before the ocean evaporates.”

Although Mathias’ proposal simply establishes an exploratory committee, and does not take a stance on what the final recommendation of the study would be, proponents and opponents of a change in scheduling have already lined up on the hot-button issue.

“The print ad is really just a platform or a springboard for publicity or to get interviews,” Malis said. “This will give the mayor an opportunity to give a balanced assessment … I think it would help the teachers to understand [the resort’s position].”

Given that pushing back the start of school would essentially grant an extension to the resort’s peak season, Ocean City stands to receive a considerable economic gain from a possible schedule change.

“In no way do we want to slight education,” Meehan said. “But I think this is tongue-in-cheek enough to get the point across.”

But some hesitation was present, even last week, that the campaign could be viewed as an ill-advised attempt to influence legislation.

“It seems to me that we’re just raising awareness, not lobbying … but is there any possibility of a backlash?” Councilman Dennis Dare asked during the commission meeting.

By the time the proposal reached the full council this week, however, that fear appeared to have grown. Both Tourism Director Donna Abbott and Tourism Commission Chair Mary Knight suggested that the campaign was likely best to begin after the legislative session had ended.

“I don’t think our advertising money is for political purposes,” said Councilman Brent Ashley, who immediately asked whether the city could or should be mixing its legislative interests with its advertising. Much of the city’s advertising budget is funded through room tax, a levy authorized by the state.

“I’m all for fun; don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure that that’s how this is going to look,” Ashley said.

“If there’s even that question, it would be important to not even touch it until the legislature ends,” Abbott said.

The council declined to vote on the campaign, although it did move forward with other marketing initiatives that Malis brought forward for the 2013 season.

City Manager David Recor later confirmed that the council would be re-visiting the idea after the state’s legislative session had ended, so that the ad would not be misconstrued as an attempt by the city to throw its political weight in Annapolis.

Maryland’s school calendars are largely left up to county-level school districts. But the schedule of state testing encourages an early return, given that the critical High School Assessments are scheduled for the end of September.

“It’s an issue of the teachers having the appropriate amount of time to prepare their students for the tests,” Mathias said.

Changing the statewide testing dates to allow counties a later start date – especially as Maryland moves towards revamping its standardized exams and curriculum – is one of the major possibilities that Mathias’ proposed committee would investigate.

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