Money to Burn: Casinos hit the broadcast jackpot

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The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn a ban on broadcast advertising depicting casino gambling has broadcasters, agencies, and casinos rethinking their media plans. Before the ruling was announced in June, private casinos could not even mention gambling in a radio or television spot, let alone feature a senior citizen working a one-armed bandit. (Casinos owned by Native Americans are exempt from the ban.) Now, gaming corporations can show off their slots, not to mention their blackjack tables and roulette wheels, in in-state ad campaigns. Regulations on interstate ads have yet to be determined by the Federal Communications Commission.

Frank Farenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, says he doesn't expect to see a significant surge in the number of casino spots overall, simply because of the court's decision. "All the major casinos have had advertising, but instead of showing gaming, they'd show Barbra Streisand, or a couple around the pool," he says. "I think that the effect will be as to content rather than to volume." If there is an increase, Farenkopf says, it's likely to be in areas where there is head-to-head competition.

One of those places is New Orleans, where the lawsuit challenging the ban originated, and where Harrah's plans to open an enormous casino in October. "In the fourth quarter of this year, there's going to be a war going on," says Frank Ratermann, general sales manager for WDSU-TV, the NBC affiliate in New Orleans. One of the warriors will be Boomtown Casino Westbank: "I'm ramping my marketing through the roof," says Ben Gravolet, marketing director at Boomtown. "I want to get out there now to make some headway."

Two days after the ruling was announced, Boomtown changed its radio spots. Instead of promoting the lobster special, the spots hyped the casino's nickel video slot machines, complete with bells, whistles, and that special jingle, jangle, jingle sound of a lucky winner hitting the jackpot. Apparently, gambling enthusiasts love to hear the sound of money, even if it's only over the radio: Gravolet says that June, which is historically slow, is looking to be one of the biggest in the casino's history.

This month, he plans to increase his television coverage two to threefold, also highlighting the video slots. Since he is hoping to stop his core clients from going to Harrah's, the ads will target his most loyal patrons - women aged 25 to 54 with household incomes below $50,000; and people over 65 - and will run on daytime soaps, Wheel of Fortune, and Entertainment Tonight.

Not exactly the targets you'd imagine for the classic "high-life" approach to casino advertising - a spot featuring a handsome guy in black tie escorting a laughing blonde past a fabulous crystal fountain. But then, according to Simmons Market Research, people ages 55 to 64 were 19 percent more likely to say they had been to a casino some time in the past year than the average, while folks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s were only about 2 percent more likely than the average to say they'd visited a casino during the same period.

In fact, an analysis of the 1998-99 season television programs on which the top-ten spending casinos advertised reveals that men and the over-65 crowd are the primary targets.

"There's a lot of sporting events and newsmagazines - and all newsmags skew old," says Marc Berman, an independent media consultant. Also on the list were Diagnosis Murder, Jag, Touched by an Angel, and 60 Minutes, which, says Berman, "are all going after an over-50 crowd - with pocket change to spare."

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