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Sal Cataldi

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Revealed -- Top Secret PR Strategy of the Bronx Zoo

Posted: 05/16/11 05:58 PM ET

To mangle the Bard, something's rotten. Not in Denmark, but somewhere far closer and dearer to my heart, at that playground for kids of all ages and nations -- the Bronx Zoo.

Since 1899, the Bronx Zoo has enriched the lives of countless millions of New Yorkers and tourists alike. Its 265 acres of lush grounds and engineered habitats today showcases more than 4,000 animals of 650 species, many of them endangered. It has remained a hugely popular destination in one of the world's most attraction-rich cities despite a seemingly low-watt approach to hype and buzz. All of its success has been a result of the most basic, old school marketing -- early sampling of wide-eyed toddlers that builds a lifetime of brand loyalty, expressed in annual return visits and decades of positive word of mouth.

But in 2011, the Bronx Zoo is becoming another breed entirely. Without warning, it's morphed into another wannabe boldfaced name with an unquenchable thirst for gimmick-driven daily headlines rivaling that of Lady Gaga or the vampire Kardashian clan.

It's peculiar for me, of all people, to feel uncomfortable with this, since I have made a very good and creative living for over 20-very-odd years concocting, implementing and hyping some of the kitschiest flackery imaginable. I've had the pleasure of staging a zombie march over the Brooklyn Bridge, constructing the world's largest Christmas tree made out of cannolis, auctioning off the "apestract" art of Tarzan's simian sidekick Cheetah and searching America for both the greatest bird trick on video (AJ, a parakeet that plays golf, bowls and dunks basketballs) and the greatest guitar face (that grimace they make when they bend their high E string or whack out a power chord). All the shtick and stunts, most of them no-calorie when it comes to textbook newsworthiness, are designed to engage the press, who then broadcast it to the public, who then rush out with wallets open to support the stunt's sponsor.

It's truly effective stuff, when done for the right brand, and when it's right for that particular brand's personality and constituents. But as much as it's my own passion and profession, I'm just not sure it's an approach I like seeing on the Bronx Zoo. Like most guys, I like mini-skirts. But I'm pretty sure I don't want to see one on a dignified, accomplished institution, on Dame Judi Dench, Madeline Albright or John McCain.

As for the zoo, my concern (okay, and envy too!) arose when I detected the not-so-invisible strings of another crafty PR Svengali (how dare they!) behind March's headline-grabbing saga of the escapee poisonous cobra. It certainly got my attention, and the hair erect on my neck, when I heard this beast, assumed massive and very deadly, naturally, was on the loose somewhere in my city.

But wasn't it a letdown to learn that the "lost" snake was found not only within the confines of the zoo, but the Reptile House itself? Wouldn't we all much rather it been found walking down Arthur Avenue, wearing a fake moustache, chomping on a stromboli? And wasn't it also a drag to find it was the size of a kids' sneaker rather than a vintage Cadillac or M1 tank? I myself was hoping to see a scene out of the movie Anaconda brought to life, for the gargantuan escapee to emerge from a shadowy hedge in Amagansett or on Park Avenue to dispatch J. Lo or Steven Spielberg with a single bite! Letdown number three was the zoo's decision to run a naming contest for the snake. I'm confused; didn't she have one already? The winner, Mia, standing for Missing in Action, was a little too predictable and treacly a choice. Perhaps it was the work of an out-of-work screenwriter of the Olsen Twins' flicks? Not sure, but it sounds plausible.

But damn, you have to give the Bronx Zoo boatloads of credit and awards for this one, their inaugural gambit into the world of manufactured marketing mayhem. It generated a week of international headlines and a social media torrent that virtually fried the servers of Twitter and Facebook. The Bronx Zoo was thrust to the top of our minds as we all started to fantasize about the warm weekend outings to come, after New York's longest and darkest winter. I just wish they would've come clean and called it what it was -- a stunt implemented for column ink, TV news and viral buzz. I mean, even professional wrestling maven Vince McMahon of the WWE, a gent I worked with for six years, eventually told the world that his "sport" was not a sport at all but a soap opera powered by muscles, so-called "sports entertainment."

The history of pop music is littered with the bodies of one-hit wonders who decided to play it safe and make their follow-up single a carbon copy of the first. And so, unfortunately, went the Bronx Zoo. Is it any wonder that the world was a little less absorbed, and likely a whole lot more suspicious, of the recent "escape" of the Bronx Zoo peacock? Most telling, it had none of the life and death potential, the drama that would fuel real interest. Couldn't they at least have left the back door open for a scorpion or the very scarily named poison dart frog? And even though the narrative concluded in a much more satisfying way, with actual sightings on the streets outside the zoo and a reported dash for a getaway by subway by said peahen, it just didn't get the bounce of the zoo's debut single on the publicity prank parade because it was a retread of their earlier smash hit.

Now this brings up a good question. In the zoo's first quiet century of success, you didn't hear a peep or press release about escaped animals. In fact, if you or I ran this or any zoo, I imagine our first order of business would be to suppress the news of an escape and go find the sucker as fast as possible.

But these escape stunts are not what concerns me with the Bronx Zoo. It's the other tactics that my brethren in publicity and marketing may have up their sleeves, for peak summer season. Here is a short laundry list of what I fear may be on the horizon flack-wise...

  • Lady Gaga Image Found in the Spots of a Newborn Giraffe: Nothing gets the media galloping faster to your door than the image of a holy person, from the world of religion or entertainment, appearing in a taco, a pancake, a piece of toast or a birthmark on a newborn. I fear that this summer the Bronx Zoo will whammy the world with the above, baiting us with not only the image of an awkwardly cute, long-legged animal infant, but with the local hook of it being that of the NYC-born international musical megastar of the moment.
  • Bronx Zoo African Grey Parrot in Talks to Replace Regis Philbin: Sounds like something the Bronx Zoo might leak to the incredibly in-the-know Page Six Editor Emily Smith, for whom a nugget of the latest media dish is a daily requisite. Not as weird as it seems, as some African Grey parrots have a vocabulary of close to 1,000 words, way more than Regis uses during his coffee talk and celebrity interviews. Like Regis, they also get very excitable and entertaining around high-pitched sounds, like those that emanate from Kelly Ripa. Lastly, the local hook is even better than Ms. Gaga, as Regis was born and schooled in the Bronx. And as it's only "a rumor" of talks, it never has to be substantiated, just like Hugh Grant's inside track to replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men or poor Richard Gere and the gerbil.
  • Sleeping Toddler on a Tiger Photo Op: Of late, the Bronx Zoo seems to have a real problem keeping its cages locked and animals within. So what's to say the opposite can't be engineered, for the kind of iPhone and Flip Cam photo/video op that spreads worldwide within 24 hours? It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to envision the folks at the zoo letting a toddler slip through the bars at the tiger cage for an adorable photo or video beside a savage beast that can quickly be uploaded to YouTube, Flickr and the like, then promulgated via HuffPost, BuzzFeed, etc., then Facebook, Twitter, etc. Naturally, it would be best if the tiger were sedated with a little something slipped into his meal before the stunt. The child too. Even better if the child cuddling with the sleeping beast is wearing a Bronx Zoo t-shirt for branding in all the viral coverage as he too snoozes his way to web stardom.
  • Benjamin Moore Presents Paint a Zebra Day Sunday at the Bronx Zoo: Nothing brings in record crowds like a day of Family Fun, one where the kids can be entertained with never-before-experienced "adventures in arts and crafts," while the parents chat or text on their cellphones, get a coffee, and enjoy a smoke. I have a great fear that in the name of upping the ante to generate what the press likes to call "a great picture story," the Bronx Zoo may well do this kind of spectacular. Of course, it will not only attract crowds and media coverage, but sponsors, as paint manufacturers throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at the zoo to be a part of this strategic, brand-equity building spectacular. And you know PETA will just love it.
  • A St. Patrick's Day Sighting of the Mobile Alabama Leprechaun: A bit of manufactured no-cost publicity pranksterism that brings a timely news hook and one of the most popular viral sensations of the Internet era. The Mobile Leprechaun exists most likely only on the Internet, the result of the massive popularity of a hilarious TV news story about the supposed sighting a leprechaun in March 2006, late at night by a group of likely sauced and toasted eyewitnesses. Tens of millions of hits for the original news story, remixes and songs created with a great tagline uttered by a witness, "Where Da Gold At," have made the Mobile Leprechaun a legend. It will only take a few finely media-trained actors to testify to the sighting, and report it to a hungry media, on the day when everyone celebrates things Erin, St. Patrick's Day, providing a nice timely kicker for news editors. Also reinforces one of the zoo's chief selling points: that it's a must-see attraction for any visitor to the Big Apple.
  • Mia the Cobra Sex Tape: When all else fails, make a sex tape! Perhaps this is what I lay awake at night most fearing, the marketing mavens in the northernmost borough trading on the fame of their homemade star with a new school flack tactic, one that largely put other young female celebs like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian into the public spotlight. Worse still, they decide to go for the gusto and make this a sex tape of the interspecies variety, pairing Mia with another Internet animal legend like the Keyboard Cat, the Skateboarding Bulldog or the Sneezing Panda.

On the whole, I give the Bronx Zoo a bravo for effort with this first foray in strategic shtick. But there's also a footnote of beware, a hope that one of my favorite institutions doesn't continue to go too Barnum and betray its true identity in the pursuit of buzz.