L.A. Zoo Unleashes Ad Blitz : Advertising: Bus cards, billboards and TV commercials aim to polish the facility's image--and to lure local families away from the San Diego Zoo.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Underfunded but hopeful, the Los Angeles Zoo has launched its costliest advertising crusade ever in an effort to boost ticket sales and to give the facility a greater competitive edge against that Big Zoo to the south.

Its first weapons are billboards and bus cards popping up across the county, sporting eye-catching images of wavy zebra stripes accompanied by the slogan: "Good Vibrations."

Coming soon are ads showing a rainbow-hued menagerie of smiling elephants, gorillas, tigers and giraffes urging "Let's Party" in English and Spanish.

By April, there will be television commercials targeting an audience the zoo has been missing: families that prefer day trips to Disneyland, Magic Mountain or, worst of all, the San Diego Zoo, which historically spends three times as much on advertising in Los Angeles County, city officials said.

The local zoo's $750,000 media blitz, which will continue through August, 1993, aims to polish an image tarnished in part by a now-resolved power struggle between city parks officials and the nonprofit group that helps raise funds for the facility. The zoo also suffered a public relations debacle this year after the death of the five-ton elephant Hannibal during an ill-fated attempt to move him to a zoo in Mexico.

If more people believe that the zoo has changed in positive ways, zoo promoters contend, they will be more likely to visit the 26-year-old facility's collection of 2,000 animals and to support its wildlife conservation programs.

"Our biggest frustration is getting more people to think good things about the zoo," said Los Angeles Zoo Director Mark Goldstein. "This campaign hopes to increase the city's pride in the zoo and make people more aware of something that is available in their own back yard."

The "Good Vibrations" theme reflects the fact that, since the arrival of Goldstein in January, the zoo has enjoyed a closer relationship with its nonprofit fund-raising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., said Dean Pregerson, vice president of the city's Recreation and Parks Commission.

"The message is that all the bad vibrations of the past have been buried," Pregerson said. "There is a sunrise of hope at the zoo with our new management and its relationship with GLAZA."

The splashy advertising images also attest to mounting pressure from city officials for the 70-acre Griffith Park facility to step out from the shadow of the San Diego Zoo, which spends about $2 million each year on advertising nationwide.

"The San Diego Zoo is doing an expensive radio campaign right now that is hitting the Los Angeles market hard and we need to counter it," said Lora LaMarca, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Zoo.

In the one-minute radio ads, a chorus-led jingle--"You belong at the zoo, the San Diego Zoo"--is followed by an announcement: "Come check out the naked mole rats," or "Come check out Blanca the white tiger."

"Until now, the most we had ever spent on advertising was $500,000 for an ad campaign to promote Adventure Island in mid-1989," LaMarca said. "This year we will spend $500,000 on television and $250,000 on outdoor billboards and bus cards."

To finance the campaign, city parks officials consolidated the zoo's advertising budgets for fiscal years 1991-92 and 1992-93. In addition, the zoo received $150,000 worth of billboard space donated by Patrick Media Group.

LaMarca said the 1991-92 advertising money was available because the zoo did not spend it last year while it bid for an advertising firm to handle its three-year account.

"Historically, the zoo's advertising budget has been so small it barely made a ripple in the pond," said Steve Klippel, chief financial officer for the city's Recreation and Parks Department. "This is as aggressive as we can get with the money we got."

Still, the marketing plan falls far short of the $2-million-a-year "dream budget" needed to make a significant advertising impact in the Los Angeles Zoo's back yard, said Larry Poindexter, president of Batey/Poindexter Advertising, which handles the zoo account on a pro bono basis.

"The zoo wants to aggressively promote itself," Poindexter said. "But it has to go through the City Council, which has other priorities and doesn't realize that the more widely the zoo is promoted, the more likely it is that people will stay in Los Angeles and not go to San Diego."

Eric Rose, a City Hall lobbyist for Patrick Media, agreed: "Unlike Toledo, Ohio, where the zoo is the only game in town, the Los Angeles Zoo has to compete with Disneyland, Universal Studios and other attractions, including the largest zoo on the West Coast, which outspends us . . . in advertising dollars."

The San Diego Zoo--with its companion facility, Wild Animal Park--has an annual budget of about $80 million and spends 2.5% of it on advertising.

"We have more money to play with," said Georgeanne Irvine, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Zoo, "but we also have two of the best zoological facilities in the world."

Indeed, the San Diego Zoo is so popular that when it celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1991, "lots of fun people like Peter Jennings, Olivia Newton John and John Ritter appeared for free on public service announcements produced by our public relations department," Irvine said.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Zoo is still hard at work trying to locate a child celebrity for its TV ads.

The 100-acre San Diego Zoo, with its collection of 4,000 animals, attracts from 3.2 million to 3.8 million visitors each year, Irvine said.

Attendance at the Los Angeles Zoo, which operates on a $12-million annual budget, has hovered at about 2 million visitors for the last several years. The zoo's admission fees are also less--$7 for adults and $3 for children, compared to $12 for adults and $4 for children in San Diego.

And both institutions have an eye on some of the same customers. "Los Angeles is an important market to us, always has been," Irvine said. "Our pitch? Get away from it all and come to San Diego."

The Los Angeles Zoo penetrated the San Diego market with one billboard once, LaMarca said: "It was in 1984, when we had a pair of Giant Pandas here. We were very proud of that sign."

This year, though, the zoo's campaign will remain on home territory.

"We'd just like our residents to realize," LaMarca said, "that they can stay in Los Angeles and have just as good a time as they can have in San Diego."

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