Will Paddy Power come to regret its tasteless Pistorius ad? Don’t bet on it

Opinion: You might like to keep the names of companies that offend you on file


Allow me to begin in cryptic fashion. At some point in the past few years, the producers of a low-budget film – made, we’ll admit, on this island – mailed journalists a selection of promotional items that seemed calculated to offend. That is, at least, the sensible interpretation. If it was not so intended then its senders were in serious need of sensitivity training.

What does one do? At least one radio show ran a story on the controversy that allowed the film-makers to express the classic non-apology apology: “We’re sorry if we caused any offence. That was not our intention.”

A UK national paper picked up the story. Suddenly, a film that would have had trouble attracting attention beyond a small corner of the review pages was registering beneath stories about wars and economic meltdowns. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the film-makers were not all that sorry offence had been taken.

The temptation to run the story was close to irresistible. But, after consideration, I decided the best thing to do was to write as little as possible about the wretched film. If, at some point in the future, the incident popped up in, say, an op-ed column, then the veil of obscurity would remain draped over the movie’s title, personnel and marketing strategy. Not only must we ignore the story; we must not mention that we are ignoring the story (because then we’d be mentioning the story, you see).

All of which eventually bring us to the trigger for this unavoidably frustrating reminiscence. Earlier this week, the cheeky tipsters at Paddy Power got into trouble over an advertisement that acknowledged the firm was taking bets on the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial. Featuring a mock-up of the former athlete as an Academy Award, the ad promised that all punters who lost on the Oscars (check out the hysterical pun) will get “money back if he walks”.

Not a hoax
More than a few jaded social networkers assumed the advert must be a hoax. It wasn’t just that Paddy Power was using the death of a young woman – Pistorius is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp – to generate profits; it was the staggeringly frivolous tone of the campaign. But real it was. As the week progressed, petitions were raised, columns were written and representatives of Paddy Power adopted stubbornly bullish positions.

“We’re offering a market on the outcome of a trial because people want to bet on it,” Cormac McCarthy, the firm’s chief financial officer, said. “We’ve had over a thousand people place bets on this. It is the story of the year.”

Asked whether the campaign was “morally wrong”, he replied: “It is a matter of opinion.”

This half-hearted defence invites more questions than it answers. If the only relevant issue is whether people “want to bet on it”, can we then assume that no moral considerations are ever relevant in deciding which events are suitable fodder for odds-makers?

Why not run a book on some celebrity cancer patient’s chances of survival?

Maybe the bookies could quote a spread on the number of women killed due to domestic violence over a set period? Whack a jaunty cartoon – something involving Andy Capp, perhaps – at the top of the relevant web page and you’ve got another ready made controversy.

You know where we’re going with this.

Whatever else happens, Paddy Power looks to have pulled off a depressingly successful promotional coup. Every outraged article (such as this) gets the company’s name mentioned.

In an accidental admission, Mr McCarthy mentioned that “over a thousand” people had bet on the trial. The implication – he didn’t say “more than 100,000”, note – is that we are dealing with a four-figure number. When you consider the millions staked, each day, on horse racing alone, that begins to sound like a pretty insignificant number.

Betting on coverage
Whatever the motivation, the decision to run the book and place the advertisement had far more impact as a general promotional tool than as a draw to those interested in betting on murder trials. Even the eventual, inevitable pulling of the advertisement triggered coverage.

There’s not much we can do about this. When citizens are fulminating about the topic on Twitter and Facebook, it would seem pointless to keep the stories from newspapers and radio broadcasts. The toothpaste is not going back into the tube. In contrast, those noted stories aside, the scandal surrounding the film mentioned above had not gone viral. We could still decide that it didn’t count as news.

One might, however, like to file such provocations and keep them in mind when making your next relevant purchase. Such personal boycotts won’t stop the shock-marketing. But they will make you feel a little better about yourself.

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