On Friday, July 29, the Indiana State Fair will, once again, welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors to the state’s largest multi-day event.
But why? How does an agricultural exposition launched in 1852 continue to attract hordes of people, many whose closest brush with agriculture consists of thumping the occasional melon in Kroger’s produce aisle?
Speaking as a longtime fairgoer, I have a few theories.
Reason #1: The Fair is Ancient
The fairgrounds at 38th and Fall Creek were originally built in 1892. When you’re ambling around the Swine Barn, ogling the state’s largest pig, and wondering whether August in Indiana has always been this sweltering, you’re getting the same essential experience as your great-great-grandparents would have—and there’s an odd, sweaty charm to that.
When I visit the Fair, I touch familiar bases. I swing by the Home and Family Arts Pavilion, to see the train car transformed into a display case. I cross over to the Ag-Hort building, to sip my traditional glass of tomato juice and check out the celebrity vegetable look-alike contest. I drop by the DNR Building to lock eyes with a paddlefish. I try my hand at the “Tug of War with Grain,” and lose. I have done each of these things dozens of times before—but it feels reassuring to do them again. In a world that has changed drastically since I was a kid, the fair is an oasis of dependability, with rituals as familiar and comforting as those of a Catholic mass—if the communion wafer was 10 times larger, deep-fried, and served with a dipping sauce.
Reason #2: The Fair is Eternally Young
Even the most beloved traditions lose their appeal if they become too stodgy. The Fair knows this, and annually offers fresh reasons to attend—including live entertainment, temporary exhibitions, and ever-changing, occasionally-alarming food offerings.
In our post-Deep-Fried Butter era, items like Cantina Louie’s “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Walking Taco” seem positively tame. A Pickle Pizza from Swain’s Concessions raises the stakes somewhat, but pales in comparison to Urick Concessions’ “State Fair Mary”—an Instagrammable (and possibly legally actionable) concoction that uses a 24-ounce Bloody Mary as its foundation, then tops it with skewered Waffle Fries, Deep-Fried Cheese Curds, Deep-Fried Macaroni and Cheese, Mini Corn Dogs, Bacon, Fried Pickles, and a BBQ Pulled Pork Slider.
This may be an appropriate time to mention that the Fair’s first aid facilities are located by the Hook’s Drug Store Museum, near the 38th Street main gate.
Non-edible Fair activities for 2022 include the World of Speed: an exhibit that features classic Indiana-made cars, plus a few celebrity ringers (the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1, and the Batmobile from the 1960s Batman TV series).
As in past years, you can catch musical acts ranging from Travis Tritt, to Pat Benatar, to Chaka Khan, to The Cowsills—and there’s ample non-musical entertainment, as well. Should you happen to be in front of the Coliseum at 2 PM on July 30th, you’ll be privileged to witness the Fair’s very first mullet competition. (Or its first official one, anyway.)
Reason #3: The Fair Teaches Us About Advertising
Okay, so maybe not everyone who attends the State Fair is fascinated by the marketing techniques of carnival workers. But that doesn’t make them any less compelling to us.
To stand in the middle of the State Fair Midway is to be assaulted by sensory information. You’ll hear clattering rides, screaming fairgoers, and blaring music. It’s not a bad analogy for the average media landscape, in which multiple messages are competing for the attention of an audience that, more often than not, is actively trying to tune them all out.
Accordingly, anyone selling a carnival game in this setting has to be clear, concise, and persuasive.
While it’s fun to imagine an understated carnival worker using a soft-sell approach (“Do you remember your old teddy bear? Its velveteen fleece? That ineffable feeling of security? Now, the State Fair offers you a way to rekindle those memories.”), subtlety rarely cuts it on the Midway.
Instead, you get a message trimmed of fat: “Step up and win a bear. Try your luck. Three balls for a dollar.”
What that message lacks in creativity, it makes up for in brevity. It describes the product, it presents a call to action, and it names a price—all of which forms a succinct message, and one appropriate for its environment. Its nearest equivalent in media might be a Google ad, in which every word counts, and repetition is a key to success.
(In case a potential client is reading this, we would like to note that an advertising technique that’s effective on a State Fair Midway will not work nearly as well in a print, radio, or television context—not even if the product you’re selling is, literally, stuffed bears.)
Reason #4: The Fairgrounds are Common Grounds
Whatever the reason for attending, it’s a fact that all kinds of people will visit the State Fairgrounds this summer—regardless of their income, race, religion, or party. That, by itself, is cause for celebration. In these divided times, it’s a marvel that one 170-year-old event can still unite us—and until such time as some misguided soul figures out how to politicize Lemon Shake-Ups, salt-water taffy, and feeding carrot coins to a goat, it always will.
See you at the Fair.