Jerry Kopel


Former Gov. Bill Owens helps “cut the wire” on tasteless lottery ads

During his 12-year tenure as governor, Roy Romer often showed his dislike of the state lottery, but there was one issue he never really tackled: “IT.”

As governor, Bill Owens took only 12 weeks to do something about “IT.”

“IT” was the advertisement policy of the state lottery to maximize revenues through extensive and very pointed advertising.

Sometimes in nightmares, during the Romer years, I would see faceless playing cards with big eyes, mouths and pipe-stem arms and legs running down a street touting some new “hot” lottery scratch game.

Or I would envision a lottery winner arm wrestling the Six Million Dollar Man and losing… proving that if a loser like him had been able to win the lottery, “so can you.”

The lottery ads were aimed at people who believed they would never have any luck and who considered their lives mundane, in an effort to get them to bet money they couldn’t afford to lose.

Then there was the “strange but true” lottery ad campaign. For example, a narrator says, “In Seattle, a man dressed as a duck for a radio station promotion was attacked and beaten for no apparent reason. (TV shows man on the back of another man dressed as a duck beating the duck-man with his arms.) Stranger things have happened than you winning Lotto.”

The duck-man soon gave way to ads with real ducks, which stressed the benefit of lottery money going to enhance parks, trails, recreation and open space.

The ad portrayed a beautiful lake framed by water grasses, with real ducks, mountains in the background on the left, evergreens on the right, rock formations in front. The narrator states, “Of all the projects built with the millions the lottery has paid back to Colorado, perhaps most impressive are those where nothing has been
built — open space never to be developed — purchased with your lottery dollars.”

Shortly after he took office, Owens met with his first revenue director, Fred Fisher, to talk about the lottery’s advertising philosophy. The lottery division then, as now, was regulated by the Department of Revenue. Fisher then met with the Lottery Commission and asked its members “to review your advertising with the view to eliminate unrealistic dreams or by appealing to the gambling instincts of lottery players.”

Fisher asked for a “one-year trial period in which the majority of ads use the same energy and creativity to stress the benefits that playing offered to the state.” The commission agreed. Very soon, all the lottery’s advertising offered the positive message that money spent on the lottery helps keep Colorado beautiful.

But now, under Gov. Bill Ritter, we have returned to the worst possible type of advertising. The concept of the ad is that a man needs to keep a time bomb from exploding.

The ad doesn’t make sense because the dialogue is not stated correctly. The point of the ad is that someone doesn’t know which wire bundling sticks of dynamite is the right one to cut to stop an explosion. Man cuts a wire and there is no explosion. Voiceover says “Luck happens” so “you should play the lottery.” At a time when land mines are killing our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan we really don’t think the ad is amusing.

Suddenly, about two weeks before this column was printed, the “cut the wire” ad vanished from the TV screen. That was during a period when Owens was making calls to persons who felt the same way about the ad as he did. His call made to me was actually not needed, as I had already begun writing this column. Perhaps the ad disappearing at the same time Owens’ worked the phones was coincidental?

Anyway, Owens needs to come out from the background and make the solid case for future decent lottery ads.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 1999, the first six months were under Gov. Romer and the decision by Gov. Owens, left only three months of possible change in advertising. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, the first six months were under Gov. Owens and the last six months ending June 30 were under Gov Ritter.

Under the sole Owens’ fiscal year ending June 30, 2000, the gross was $370.9 million, and the last sole Owens’ fiscal year ending June 30, 2006 was a gross $468.7 million, a nearly $100 million climb using positive advertising.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.