Sand, yes

cicadas, no

Respite: Ocean City pitches a crunch-free stay at the shore while the 17-year cicadas come up for air and noisy mating.

May 13, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

If a few million noisy cicadas aren't your idea of a good time, the folks in Ocean City have a deal for you.

They are willing to provide refuge in a cicada-free zone. (Cicadas do not like sandy soil.) Regular room rates apply, of course.

In an aggressive print and radio advertising campaign, Ocean City is mapping out a cicada escape route and itemizing a cicada survival kit to help get people through the emergence of the Brood X Periodic Cicada, with the goal of booking the resort strip long before the prime vacation weeks of July and August.

"We talked to a lot of entomologists, and the consensus is the first couple weeks of June are going to be the most disgusting," said Andy Malis, president of MGH, the advertising and public relations firm that came up with the campaign. "They're going to be dying and crunchy. That's why we timed the radio [ads] to air when people are at their most disgusted."

The Baltimore advertising firm is just one of the many businesses capitalizing on the cicadas' unusual mating ritual.

The Internet is replete these days with pitches for everything from cicada T-shirts to cicada happy hours to books of insect recipes.

In the next few days, local jeweler Marley Simon plans to create a "non-annoying" cicada pin whose body will be made of an unusually shaped pearl with wings of white gold and eyes of coral or ruby to sell for about $1,200. Those cicadas that rest on a leaf of jasper or druse quartz will run about $1,000 more, he said.

"In the jewelry industry, bugs are very popular," said Simon, a partner in Marley Fine Jewelry in Pikesville who saw his first cicada of the current invasion yesterday. "Everyone has been talking about them so much - that's what gave me the idea."

Playing his own straight man in the Ocean City radio spots, Mayor Jim Mathias will offer up the resort to cicada refugees as a place to escape attack. Along the way, he'll mock the winged creatures' distaste for boogie-boarding and saltwater taffy and their ineptness at miniature golf.

"We lament what our neighbors in the Mid-Atlantic are going to have to experience," Mathias said yesterday. "But this is a great refuge. What joy it will be to come to Ocean City and hear the surf pounding on the beach and the children laughing and the carousel and not to have to hear the shrieking noise of the cicadas."

The idea is to remind people about Ocean City, get the summer off to a good start and to make sure that the Maryland beach stays top-of-mind as people make vacation plans for later in the summer.

"We're hoping that even if the weather isn't good in June, that people will still want to get away from the cicadas and come to Ocean City," MGH's Malis said.

$160,000 campaign

The campaign will cost about $160,000 and is expected to generate public relations value much larger than that. Ocean City spends about $1 million on marketing annually, dwarfed by the $7 million spent by its competitor to the south, Virginia Beach, Malis said.

One of the print ads says: "You won't find a single cicada in Ocean City. The experts say it's due to our sandy soil. But we think it's because these pesky little guys just don't know how to have a good time. But you do. After all, there's more to life than just mating and dying. Right?"

Although the campaign is unlikely to have long-term impact, it's clever, said John P. McLaughlin, a Baltimore marketing consultant.

"It's a fun idea, capitalizing on a situation that will bring some attention to Ocean City," he said. "It's true, and it's relevant, so it's a very cute idea for a short-term benefit. But you have to get the idea executed fast. This is the type of thing that could be mimicked very quickly by Cape May, N.J., or wherever."

The concept for Ocean City's campaign came out of the agency's public relations division.

"I threw out the idea at a meeting," said Michael O'Brien, MGH senior vice president and director of public relations. "These bugs come once every 17 years. What on earth can we do to take advantage of it? How can we use them to help our clients?"

O'Brien made the connection with client Ocean City after reading that the insects would not appear on the Eastern Shore.

After double-checking with several entomologists, the firm was convinced that they had a winning idea to take to Ocean City officials who view Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania as their target audience.

"It was pretty cool that the primary area affected by these cicadas is really the five-state area that Ocean City draws from," O'Brien said. "It was almost too good to be true."

Don't like the beach

O'Brien, who can barely speak a sentence these days without some kind of bug pun slipping out, had to correct himself after saying he hoped the campaign would generate some buzz. "Our hope is that maybe it will take on a life of its own," he said.

Cicadas simply don't come to the beach, Mathias said yesterday, revving up for the radio spots he will record later this week.

"They absolutely detest sand castles, and they can't stand the smell of suntan lotion," he said. "Miniature golf scares them to death. We have all the elements of a cicada-free community. Our doors are wide open for you to come and get that relief."

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