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Patrick Gannon: Too far or not far enough on lottery ads?

RALEIGH — N.C. Education Lottery officials last week showed legislators a video of school kids in New York surprising convenience store customers by singing a song of thanks in the store.

“Every time you play a New York Lottery game, a portion of your sale goes to eight New York State school children, just like that,” the narrator says in the ad for that state’s lottery. “New York Lottery. Everybody wins.” (Google “Haven Kids Rock lottery” to see the commercial on YouTube).

Alice Garland, executive director of North Carolina’s 10-year-old lottery, showed the video to a legislative committee, hoping to show that lottery ads featuring children can be done tastefully, while reminding viewers that proceeds go to schools. She called the ad “very positive.”

In 2008, a then-state senator demanded that children not be used in lottery ads. Garland said that makes it difficult for the lottery to produce ads showing where the money goes. Currently, lottery proceeds are spent on various education-related causes identified in the state budget.

But some legislators don’t like the idea of associating kids with gambling, even though they are the ultimate beneficiaries of lottery proceeds.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican, deemed the New York ad “absolutely disturbing” and “absolutely dangerous.”

“There’s no way that we should be going down that route,” Dollar said.

It’s a touchy subject, for sure.

And so, the debate continues over how and how much to advertise the state lottery. Lottery officials and critics also have debated whether certain ads over the years amounted to enticing people to play. Lottery ads aren’t allowed to have the “primary purpose” of “inducing” people to participate, under state law. And they’ve debated specific wording included in the ads, such as information about odds of winning and prize amounts.

The lottery is allowed by law to spend 1 percent of its sales on advertising — about $20 million a year on digital, TV, radio and print ads.

Lottery officials want to be able to spend more, and the General Assembly has debated giving them that authority in recent years. More advertising cash would allow the lottery to better market new scratch-off games 12 months a year — it currently advertises eight months. More money also could go toward ongoing support for draw games, such as Powerball, and help the lottery get the message out about recipients of lottery earnings.

“There is a great deal of confusion among citizens of North Carolina about exactly where beneficiary dollars go,” Garland said.

This year, the lottery expects to exceed $2 billion in ticket sales for the first time and raise about $529 million for education.

If permitted by the General Assembly to spend 1.25 percent of its sales on ads — about a $5 million a year increase — the lottery could generate nearly $19 million more per year for education in the 2017 fiscal year, Garland said. And doubling the cap to 2 percent of sales — about $40 million a year — would net an extra $48 million a year, she predicted.

Over the years, N.C. Education Lottery officials have become accustomed to hearing complaints about lottery advertising. That’s not going to stop any time soon.

When you spend $20 million a year on something, you’re bound to get attention — positive and negative.

So what do you think? Too much lottery advertising? Or should the lottery maximize proceeds to schools with even more ads? Can’t wait to hear.

Patrick Gannon is editor of the Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at pgannon@newsobserver.com.

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