Paddy Power’s ‘Oscar’ bet does its industry no favours

Its offer of odds on the Pistorius trial coincides with moves to curb betting promotion

On trial:  Oscar Pistorius

On trial: Oscar Pistorius

 

What separates Paddy Power’s disgusting “money-back-if-he-walks” advertisement for its offer of a flutter on the Oscar Pistorius verdict from voyeuristic as-it-happens media coverage of the trial? To some extent, it’s a question of plausible deniability. News organisations – even the Sun , which proved incapable of distinguishing Reeva Steenkamp the model from Reeva Steenkamp the woman the day after she was shot dead – can fall back on a public-interest justification.

There is an underlying seriousness to this case, after all. It must be reported in some fashion, even if that fashion includes actual fashion – one reporter noted that Pistorius’s sister Aimee wore “smashing patent blue heels” to the courthouse – and even if that fashion makes anyone with an ounce of empathy for the victim and her family feel deeply uncomfortable.

But whenever accusations of sensationalism arise, the veneer of more sober reporting conventions can overlay the worst of it. And in the post-verdict free-for-all, everyone will forget that the judge was forced to warn attending media to “behave” after a picture of a witness who had not consented to be filmed was shown by South African broadcaster eNCA. Apologising, eNCA said it had misunderstood the ruling on coverage and thought images of witnesses sourced out of the courtroom could be used.

No such regret has been forthcoming from the Irish bookmaker, which has taken to describing the case as “OJ Simpson on steroids”, while simultaneously claiming it is “no different” from any other global news event on which it offers odds.

In the “current affairs” section of its website, the listing for the bet is sandwiched between odds on the next archbishop of Canterbury and which tech giant will have a higher market capitalisation at the end of 2016, Apple or Microsoft? It feels necessary to point out no women have died, that we know of, in the shuffle to become the next head of the Church of England, though the casualties of advanced capitalism are harder to count.

What really differentiated the Pistorius trial was the fact it lent itself so well to a play on words. “It’s Oscar time,” the ad declared, superimposing the face of the man the media calls “Blade Runner” over an image of a gold statuette. The Oscars, you see, coincided with the beginning of the murder trial.

Then there’s the “money-back-if-he-walks” line offering a refund on all losing bets in the event of a not-guilty verdict. Pistorius is an amputee. He’s an amputee who walks, and has been known to sprint, so the copywriting doesn’t quite fit, but it’s suggestive enough of his physical status to remove all doubt about which came first in Paddy Power-land: the pun, not the bet. As news bets are peripheral to the core business of bookmakers, its decision to offer odds on the case is a straight-up marketing call.

Pistorius denies murdering Steenkamp, and says he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder when he shot her through a bathroom door. The prosecution contends it was a premeditated murder. Either way, a human being is dead, and Paddy Power’s trivialisation of this fact – its invitation to customers to enjoy the thrill of a gamble on the judicial process – goes above and beyond its previous form when it comes to offensive provocation.

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has launched a formal investigation, but the sanction of independent watchdogs is the least of anyone’s troubles. Culture secretary Maria Miller has signalled a crackdown on the “uneasy” explosion in betting advertising on British television channels, as well as a possible ban on the advertising of slot machines in shop windows and a “significant” review of the codes of practice governing gambling promotion.

This is bad news for the whole industry, which has frantically tried to negate the idea that the proliferation of fixed-odds betting terminals is a societal ill. Such machines, not so-called “novelty bets”, are the profit engines of gambling companies in the UK, and any introduction of “tougher and enforceable” restrictions, on top of voluntary codes, will likely be resisted.

Presumably, given the lobbying that lies ahead, other bookmakers could do without Paddy Power eliciting hostile public reaction and condemnatory tweets from MPs with their marketing “mischief”. Just last weekend, Miller called on the sector “to put social responsibility at the heart of its business”. The “Oscar time” advertisement indicates the odds on this happening are high.

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