07/26/2001 12:00AM

Ads: Laughs but little else


DEL MAR, Calif. - Steve Martin, that wild and crazy guy, insists that it is impossible to be unhappy when in the presence of someone playing a banjo, even if the lyrics wallow in murder, death, and destruction.

If he is correct - and he's never let me down yet - the National Thoroughbred Racing Association will be spreading unmeasurable joy with at least one of its four new commercials, unveiled this weekend in placements on the ESPN sports-television network. Viewers will be treated to the sight of ESPN personality Kenny Mayne dressed in riding silks, flanked by real live jockeys, and strummin' on the old banjo.

To go into further details about the NTRA commercials would spoil the fun. Let's just say that Aaron Gryder and Jorge Chavez are both very game, but they probably won't be doing Shakespeare in the park anytime soon. As emcee, Mayne has become the best reason to attend the Eclipse Awards Dinner each year, but his use in these commercials is strictly tailored for the ESPN audience. Presumably, if Mayne digs racing - and is willing to come off like a combination of Tiny Tim and Dorf on Dobbin - then ESPN junkies will think racing is cool. Personally, I'd rather watch Dan Patrick throw baseball bats out of a helicopter.

The party line from the NTRA marketing department is attempting to cut the legs out from under any insider criticism of the commercials by citing the targeted audience as those millions of "lapsed and light" racing fans. Being neither light nor lapsed, it is difficult for most dedicated racing fans to judge the impact of the commercials.

It is also hard to account for taste, especially when it comes to humor.

There are actually people who pay money to watch Adam Sandler on a movie screen, so there you go. It is not hard to imagine a conference room full of NTRA brass, ad agency account reps, and a smattering of office staffers absolutely busting their guts at the sight of Mayne and his crooning compadres sitting on their rocking horses, backed by a montage of stimulating though disconnected visual images. Call it techno-retro. "Clockwork Orange" meets Gene Autry.

The ads were obviously designed to rise above the din of the commercial racket on television these days. If they do that, great. But then what? What is the message. The spots - paid for by NTRA member dues - were promised to be generic, yet there is no recognizeable racing personality outside the greater New York metropolitan area. And the racehorse itself - the best selling point of the game - is reduced to bit-player status, just as it was in earlier NTRA ads featuring Lori Petty, Rip Torn, and that screaming woman with the large mouth.

Advertising is important. No one is suggesting it is easy. When it works on television, it can be a pleasure to behold, no matter what product is being sold. The television ad campaign devised by the Campbell Mithun agency for the Del Mar meet offers proof to the point.

Four ads, each one featuring Chris McCarron and Alex Solis, place the riders in everyday situations while the riders continue to exist in their own racing world. This is classic juxstaposition, employed with such great success by the comedy minds behind Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, and Saturday Night Live. Think of a cheese shop with no cheese.

So the viewer is treated to the sight of McCarron and Solis trying to talk their way out of a traffic ticket by whining that they were instructed to stay close to another car and maintain their position. Solis, the passenger, even twirls his whip as McCarron drives off. An innocent family scene, featuring a father giving his daughter a horsey-back ride, is interrupted by the two riders invading the picnic and browbeating the little girl with riding tips. "Here," says McCarron, lifting the girl off her dad.

"I'm gonna have to show you."

Advertising is by definition insulting. At least the Del Mar ads keep the insults to a bare minimum. Dedicated racing fans can watch them without fear of allergic reaction.

"The core audience doesn't need to be educated, certainly. But I don't think they need to be turned off, either," said Gary Meads, head of the San Diego office of Campbell Mithun.

"This campaign takes two racing icons and has fun with them," Meads went on. "If people are not familiar with these guys - and I would imagine a number of the viewers at home don't know that these guys are famous, because we don't identify them as such - they just think it's funny. But for somebody in the know, it's even funnier."

Hopefully, this latest batch of ads from the NTRA will penetrate the target audience. We already know that successful advertising works in mysterious, subliminal ways. After a full evening of ESPN's "Sports Center," during which not a whisper of racing news will be uttered, perhaps those lapsed fans will start sitting up in bed at 3 a.m. and wonder why in the world they have a sudden desire to go to a racetrack.

Or play a banjo.