SALT LAKE CITY — Well-known director Jared Hess is known for making quirky, yet entertaining films, so it was not a stretch that he was asked to lend his considerable talent to produce the marketing campaign for the Utah State Fair. His first foray into fair ads went well, as his "Napoleon Dynamite"-inspired marketing spots created quite a positive buzz a few years ago.
But this year, the buzz has been tinged with controversy and possibly racism, according to the 31-year-old filmmaker.
The controversial ads, written by Hess' younger brother, a student at BYU-Idaho, were pulled from television airwaves at the last minute by the Utah State Fair Board after some members expressed concern over their content. But radio ads featuring the identical dialogue were allowed to run.
Critics argue the TV spots were too risqué, laden with sexual undertones. Hess, however, was not convinced that was the only factor.
"I found it a little bit unsettling that they would pull the TV spots but leave the radio ads, which have the exact same content and lyrics," Hess said. "The things that make the TV spots different is you see who's singing the spots."
Hess said he thought the decision "was a strange statement" that the State Fair Board was making. He believes there might have been a racial motivation behind the decision to pull the spots.
During an interview Monday on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show," he said he believed the reason the board removed the visual ads was because in part because the actor in the spots was African-American.
"Just when you think we've moved past that type of prejudice, it becomes very unsettling that this could potentially be the reason why (the ads) were pulled," he said.
The State Fair Board replaced the 2010 commercials with a 2008 campaign featuring a young girl and a cow.
Hess said the new spots celebrated all that is unique to the fair, but board members saw something else.
"I felt that it just wasn't right," said Lorin Moench Jr., chairman of the Utah State Fair Board. "We didn't want to offend anybody. Other board members and some people called in and said they felt they were offensive."
Moench says some of the board members felt the ads featuring a '70's style soul singer waxing poetically about pigs and funnel cakes, had sexual undertones and were over the top, while others saw no problem with them. But the board decided to pull the ads anyway.
Moench denied Hess' claim that skin color played a role in the decision to strike the television ads.
"It had nothing to do with race or the actor or anything like that," Moench says. "It could have been anyone there. It was just the mannerisms and such, with the pig and things such as that; it just it's on the edge and we don't want that."
In the end, Moench says it's all about drawing people into the fair.
"You almost can't do anything without offending somebody, but we try to offend the least amount of people possible," Moench says. He says he hopes the controversy doesn't deter people from coming to the State Fair.
The actor in the spots, Markus Boddie, said he was disappointed to hear the TV ads were nixed.
"When I heard that it got pulled and then I read some of the comments that people were leaving … that made me a bit upset," Boddie said. He said the campaign was not meant to be disrespectful, but an attempt to reach an audience that might not normally attend the fair.
As for whether the decision to pull the spots was based on race, Boddie said, "We've got a black president … and Gladys Knight is well known in this state and so I thought that we would have been beyond those types of implications."
He was surprised that the ads were removed from television, but not radio.
"Why am I not pretty enough for the camera, but sound good on the radio," he queried. "Maybe it wasn't pulled off because I'm black, however … I think it's just a misunderstanding between the two cultures — more of a battle between old ideas versus new ideas and some of those old ideas are racially motivated."
Whatever the motivation, he said this could have been a chance to enlighten a new audience about what's good in Utah.
"I think the state fair board missed an opportunity to not only reach out to another market, but also change the way that we are looked at as a state from people outside of (Utah)," Boddie said.