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Casinos: wholesome or wholly political?
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The Mille Lacs Band's two casinos are getting an image overahaul in a new ad campaign. Can the attempt at re-branding avoid the current political issues surrounding gambling? (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
Casinos have been in the spotlight a great deal in the past few months. Gov. Pawlenty wants Indian tribes to share their millions in revenues. Other politicians want to build metro area casinos that would compete with some of the hugely profitable out-state facilities. And in the meantime, anti-gambling lobbyists continue to decry gambling's addictiveness. The tribes have a product that's much coveted and contested. And the way they advertise that product can have decisive consequences.

Hinckley, Minn. — You won't hear about politics in the new ads from the Mille Lacs Grand Casino, or about the slots, or entertainment offerings. And you certainly won't hear about the big jackpot wins that make gambling look sexy.

Instead, the ads draw from real life experiences of Grand Casino customers. They're stories of simple, rural people.

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Image The advertising team

In one ad, a man uses his casino winnings to buy the dog he always wanted. Another ad depicts a farmer, who wins a pair of diamond earrings. She wears the earrings while milking cows.

And then of course there's the spot about a sweet looking grandma.

"Dear Grand Casino," she says in the ad. "I'm 72 and I"ve never won big before."

But then she won a Harley Davidson motorcycle. A month later, she won another.

Chad Germann, who runs Red Circle Advertising, the outfit that produced the spots, knows plenty of "Grand Casino stories" himself. He's a Mille Lacs Band member, and his mom works at the casino in Hinckley.

Germann says the new ad campaign is part of an image overhaul for the casino.

While there isn't an overt political message to those ads, they clearly are political.
- Terence Check, professor of communications

"We want to take Grand Casino and redefine its place in the market, or redefine the market," Germann notes. "So that Grand Casino creates a different idea in the minds of our guests."

And it's an idea that's very different from what Grand Casino has presented in the past. Last year's ads showed Indians talking about how much casino revenues improve their quality of life. They emphasized how potential competition from metro casinos would steal jobs from their casino towns.

So the old message was that casinos are good for Indians and local economies. Now the message is that casinos are good for everyone. The packaging of the messages might be different, but in the end, the ads still have the aim of garnering the public's support.

"While there isn't an overt political message to those ads, they clearly are political," says Terence Check, a professor of communications at St. John's University, where he teaches a class on the rhetoric of advertising

Check says the people who designed the new Grand Casino ad campaign might not have done so with political ideas in mind. But he says any images that casinos put out there for public consumption are going to be framed by the current political debates, and by the many political interests that want a slice of tribal gaming revenues.

For Check it's especially significant that Grand Casino's new ads present a wholesome, non-addictive portrait of gambling.

"What these ads do is avert attention away from that, because these are people who have won only modest winnings, but have clearly gone to a casino only to have a little fun," he notes.

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Image Communications professor Terence Check

Check says there's nothing sinister about this implied message. He says almost all advertising carries some kind of subtext.

He adds that it may only be a matter of time before casinos will have to take on yet another strategy, and address the social ills of gambling, like addiction, head on. That's a road travelled by alcohol and tobacco industries. Casinos may have to follow suit.

"I think you'll probably start to see some advertising which will highlight negative stories -- people who have gambled, but who have done so irresponsibly, as a way of the industry differentiating itself from that -- as a way of saying 'we don't want that. We're not interested in that,'" Check says.

Even if the ads don't take politics as their focus, their message is going to have political undertones. Ultimately, the product on the line is a multi-million-dollar industry, and no image that represents it can be stripped from today's political context.

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