Lottery TV ads raising eyebrows

Staff writerMay 25, 2011 

— When the North Carolina legislature passed a state lottery six years ago, did its restriction on advertising preclude a rock band from singing out, "big bucks, quick bucks, big old bucks, mega bucks"?

Former state treasurer Richard Moore thinks so. Moore, a longtime lottery opponent, thinks the current advertising campaign by the N.C. Lottery Commission has gone over the line of what is permissible in trying to persuade Tar Heel residents to play the lottery.

"I think they are illegal," Moore says. "As a citizen I was outraged."

That is not the view of the lottery commission, which says it is following the law in using a rock band, and before that a commercial featuring pro wrestler Ric Flair.

"We take our lottery law and responsibility for advertising very seriously," said Alice Garland, the lottery's executive director. "No ad concept goes forward unless an internal team agrees that the concept is not enticing."

"We make certain that our ads don't say, 'play this game' or 'you will win' or show limousines or big houses or sacks of money," she said. "Other states do show those things in their ads."

The new ad is a parody of the infomercials for golden oldie CDs that often air on late-night TV. It features a rock band belting out the names of various lottery games with bucks in their name, and asking, "how do you like your bucks?"

The announcer says: "The best of bucks - now available. All your scratch-off favorites. The buck for the N.C. Education Lottery."

"This ad passed our test of not being enticing," Garland said. "And stays within our guidelines of using comedy or humor to make players aware that we have games."

But that is not how Moore, a former Democratic candidate for governor and former crime control secretary, took it when he saw the ad while watching an NBA playoff game. To him, it was an enticement to play the lottery.

Moore said that it seems that during the first major budget crisis since the lottery passed, the lottery commission has thrown off its advertising restraints.

"It has gotten wildly off the path," Moore said.

Part of the compromise

When North Carolina became the last big state in the country to pass the lottery in 2005, it was a close vote that required a number of compromises to placate skeptics. Among them was the provision limiting advertising.

The law says "no advertising may have the primary purpose of inducing persons to participate in the lottery."

Bill Brooks, of the N.C. Family Policy Council, a socially conservative organization that opposed the lottery, said the lottery's TV advertising has been trending toward encouraging people to play for some time, citing as an example the TV ad featuring Flair.

"I think they have been exceeding the law," Brooks said. "This ad is more aggressive than what has come before. It is designed to get people to play the lottery."

The problem might be the law itself, Sridhar Balasubramanian, a marketing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said.

He said that almost any advertising, even the most innocuous ad which says the proceeds will go for education, could be interpreted as inducing someone to play the lottery.

Garland said it should be remembered that the lottery is competing for people's discretionary money.

"We see advertising as critical to the success of a sales organization, which is what we are," Garland said.

What players think

Lottery players offered mixed opinions on whether the TV ads had any effect.

Jeanette Richard of Goldsboro, a delivery person in her 50s, said the lottery commercials got her attention.

"It makes you want to try the lottery. I remember the Ric Flair ad, whooo," she said giving his signature cry.

But Marcus Mathis, a 47-year-old Raleigh plumber, said he paid no attention to the advertising.

"I'm from New York City," Mathis said. "I've always played the lottery. I'm just used to playing Pick 3. TV ads don't make a difference for me."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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