Governor could learn from honest lottery ads

April 17, 2001|By Michael Olesker

WITHOUT MUCH fanfare, the Maryland State Lottery has had a change of philosophy. It is now considered appropriate to admit the obvious: Even if you play, you probably aren't going to win.

Somebody should give them points for honesty. Somebody should also alert the governor of Maryland, who needs a slight reminder.

This governor, Parris N. Glendening, keeps getting caught with his hypocrisy showing.

He trembles at the thought of slot machines at racetracks, decreeing gambling immoral, but thinks that a state lottery is fine. He worries about enticing people into gambling away their hard-earned money, even while increasing the lottery advertising budget.

Fortunately, the folks at the lottery have a better sense of perspective than their boss does. It isn't just about winning, they now declare; it's about the simple fun of playing, of taking a metaphorical roll of the dice with a few extra bucks you have lying around.

You can see the change of heart in the new lottery television commercials, which have been running for a few months now.

In one, some folks on the Eastern Shore are tossing pumpkins as far as they can. In another, a couple of guys from Highlandtown are buzzing around town in a car with a built-in barbecue pit. In a third, a dog drives a car and tells himself, "You gotta get out and enjoy life; to do anything else would make me a cat."

The consistent theme, in each of these spots, is the sheer fun of playing. Winning is strictly an afterthought.

This is a sharp change from the old days - "You gotta play to win," the lottery used to trumpet - and, everybody agrees, is a direct result of the thinking of lottery director Buddy Roogow.

As Jimmy White, the lottery's director of public affairs, was saying yesterday, "When he came on board, he said, `It's apparent that most people who play do not win ... [White paused for a moment here, as if pondering just how blunt he wanted to be] ... a whole lot of money."

"It became crystallized," White said, "that, to be responsible, you have to get away from that. Then we had a tag line that said, `It could be you.' And Buddy said, `It could be you, but it probably won't be you. So we don't want people spending more than they should. We don't want them spending with the idea that they could get rich. We want them to think of it as an entertainment.'

"And that's where we came up with the pumpkin toss, which is an actual event, and that car we found in Highlandtown with the grille, and the dog driving the car. It's about the pursuit of doing something they want to do, something that's fun."

Precisely.

To the vast majority of those who gamble, it is strictly a game and not an obsession. This governor chooses to imply otherwise, since he once got caught with under-the-table racetrack money and doesn't wish to remind people about it by allowing slot machines at the tracks.

But it's a self-destructive gesture. When the General Assembly finished its business last week, knowing this governor's feelings, it took another pass on slot machines at the tracks.

In Delaware and West Virginia, where the slot machine money arrives by the hundreds of millions at the tracks, they heaved another sigh of relief. Every year, their legislatures should pass a resolution thanking Maryland for its thick-headedness. Can anyone imagine where Maryland's finances might be without lottery revenues? Last year, for example, the state took in $400 million in lottery money. (And players took home about $650 million.) In little Delaware, they're doing about $3 billion a year in slot machines at their racetracks, which has rejuvenated not only their racing industry but their schools. In Maryland, where financial storm clouds loom, can anybody imagine what we might do with such numbers?

Naturally, the people involved with the lottery do not wish to comment on the governor's intransigence regarding slots. But their new commercials make the perfect point: It's a game, it's a lark, it's a way to have a little fun with your life and not money you throw away instead of paying the rent this month.

Yesterday, David Blum, senior vice president at Eisner Communications - they're the people who produced the lottery commercials - was explaining this thinking.

"We did extensive research with focus groups, with telephone interviews, with one-on-one interviews," Blum said. "We realized, the thing Buddy Roogow said about not stressing the winning - because most people don't win - was the way most players felt about it. They're very realistic. They know the dream of large prizes is a long shot.

"The real reason they play is the fun and entertainment. And Maryland's probably the first state in the country, or the world, to tap into this reality," Blum said.

For players, it's the fun. For the state, it's strictly the bucks. In Delaware, they figured this out billions of dollars ago. West Virginia, too. In Annapolis, there are those who say slots are inevitable in Maryland - but maybe not while Parris Glendening lurks about. He still defines gambling as immoral.

He should look at his own lottery commercials.

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