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Jewish World Review April 25, 2000 / 20 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


Now that casino ads are allowed to tell the truth . . . -- LAS VEGAS Now that casinos can legally advertise on television and radio what they are really selling -- the gambling experience -- I have a suggestion for them. Not that they'll take it.

For many years, casinos were not allowed to depict or even refer to gambling in their commercials. It was an odd thing to have to omit -- what is a casino going to promote to the public, if not gambling? -- but that was the law.

A 1934 federal law. Congress, almost 70 years ago, was worried about the effects that gambling had on the American public, and decided that radio stations should not be allowed to help lure gamblers. Later the prohibition was extended to the new medium of television.

Now, you may think you have seen many casino commercials over the years. And you have -- but they have been filled with code phrases like "Las Vegas-style excitement," or "the great Vegas experience." Casinos all over the country learned to promote their restaurants, their nightclubs, their 24-hours-a-day action -- and to do so without ever mentioning or showing gambling. The word "casino" itself was banned -- a casino could not, on TV or radio, advertise that it was a casino.

But that has recently changed. The no-casino-commercials law did not apply to the many casinos owned by Native American tribes -- just to privately owned casinos. State lotteries were allowed to advertise on TV and radio all they wanted -- the states could ask people to gamble, the casinos could not.

It didn't seem fair -- and last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it wasn't. Now casinos are allowed to show gambling in their TV commercials, to emphasize that they are casinos and that they want you to bet there. No longer are casino ads restricted to shots of happy couples clicking champagne glasses; now, craps tables and roulette wheels and slot machines are permitted to star in the commercials.

So here is my proposal:

If the casinos are going to accurately depict what business they're in -- and they have long said that they want to be free to realistically portray the casino experience -- then they should include Sgt. Solomon Bell in their commercials.

Bell was a police officer in Oak Park, Mich., who, earlier this year, lost $20,000 in one of Detroit's new casinos -- and then pulled out his service revolver and, right there in the casino, put a bullet in his head.

Was the gambling loss the only problem in Sgt. Bell's life? No. But the casino is where he broke -- and reportedly, several weeks before his own suicide, he had told a friend about how fellow officers had stopped a woman who was despondent over gambling debts from killing herself.

The casino business is often the despair business -- something that it does not like to advertise. The reason that law was on the books for all those years was that the federal and state governments were for a long time not shy about admitting the harm that gambling brings to so many people. Now that so many states are in bed with the gambling industry -- and now that so many states encourage their own citizens to gamble away their money in state-run lotteries -- government bodies prefer not to look the problem in the face. They would be ashamed of themselves if they did.

If you disagree with me, do yourself a favor: Walk through a casino at 6 a.m. I've done it on many occasions. The people who are gambling at that hour are not there for good times and lighthearted recreation. They're either hooked, or desperately trying to win their money back. Walk over to the pay phones in a casino at 6 or 7 in the morning; listen to the anguished people calling loved ones, begging for enough money to buy transportation home.

A fellow visitor to Las Vegas the other day told me, matter-of-factly, about how he had walked through the casino in his hotel early that morning, on his way to play golf, and had seen a man crying -- literally crying -- to his wife as the man tried to explain to her that all their money was gone. It was breakfast time on a new day -- and the casino had taken all they had.

Now the casinos are free to advertise what they really do -- and they are pleased, because they will get to film colorful commercials featuring the various games of chance. Finally, they say, they can take advantage of truth in advertising -- finally they can show the true product.

While they're at it -- truth in advertising -- they ought to have the courage to tell the whole truth. Show the sadness; show the despair. Show the world what business they're really in.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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