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State bets lottery can cash in on Flintstones
April 27, 2008

The state quietly launched the $2 scratch-off game in December, and once again Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty have proved their popularity, fueling nearly $14 million in ticket sales. Lottery officials have billed the game as a cultural touchstone for baby boomers who remember ? when the show debuted in 1960 as a primetime spoof on suburban life.

Written by Karisa King, San Antonio Express-News

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 They're a modern Stone Age family from the town of Bedrock. Once a TV hit, these bright-colored cartoon characters have turned into pop icons with powerful consumer appeal, most famously used for marketing children's vitamins and breakfast cereals. Now, they're helping Texas sell something else.

Lottery players: Meet the Flintstones.

The state quietly launched the $2 scratch-off game in December, and once again Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty have proved their popularity, fueling nearly $14 million in ticket sales. Lottery officials have billed the game as a cultural touchstone for baby boomers who remember ? when the show debuted in 1960 as a primetime spoof on suburban life.

But where lottery officials see nostalgia, gambling opponents and some lawmakers perceive a direct and dangerous pitch to kids and their parents. Critics said the game poses particular risks to children because the tickets are cheap and visible and offer the kind of instant gratification that can lead to compulsive gambling.

And the costs can be high. For children, gambling often is a gateway to taking more risks like smoking cigarettes, drinking and committing petty crimes, advocates said.

"Just because it's an old cartoon doesn't mean that today's children wouldn't be attracted to it," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "I don't care if it's a cartoon from 1910. If it's imagery or a theme that has even a small chance of appealing to kids, it's inappropriate."

Although Texas law prohibits the sale of lottery tickets to anyone under 18, advocates said parents often buy tickets for their kids, and the cartoon theme raises additional concerns in a state that sells scratch-offs in vending machines.

The game is part of a national shift toward greater reliance on instant-win games that feature familiar images and brand names. As state lotteries see flagging sales in traditional games like Lotto Texas and Mega Millions, scratch-offs have picked up the slack. In Texas, they account for about 76 percent of all lottery sales.

"The growth part of the lotteries is the scratch-off tickets," said Ernie Passailaigue, president of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

Pablo Landa has seen the appeal firsthand. From his spot behind the counter at Step N Go the city's largest lottery retailer, he watches parents stream into the neighborhood store with their kids, usually from 4 to 5 p.m. after school.

Landa said it's not unusual for parents to pick up Flintstones tickets at the suggestion of their children, who spot the games at the front counter, just beyond the shelves of candy bars and gum.

"Kids are like, ‘The Flintstones, the Flintstones!'?" he said. "They see the Flintstones, they're pointing their finger. That's one of the reasons the older people buy it."

But lottery spokesman Bobby Heith said the Flintstones game is aimed squarely at adults and is only the latest in a line of retro-themed games in Texas such as Betty Boop and "I Love Lucy."

Like other states, Texas carefully tracks who plays which games and how much. Heith said staff members are sensitive to the possibility that some games might grab the attention of children.

Before introducing the Flintstones, the lottery assembled a focus group of players who typically buy $2 games and asked for their response to three potential new scratch-offs: the Flintstones, the Jetsons and Underdog.

Players didn't like the Jetsons, but the Flintstones and Underdog went over well. As the agency made plans to put both games on the shelves, staff members learned that the Underdog game would coincide with a Disney movie featuring the caped canine superhero and a heavy ad campaign geared to kids.

So the commission scrapped the game.

Heith said the Flintstones theme didn't spark the same concerns at the agency, and officials didn't vet the game with lawmakers who oversee the commission.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said that was a mistake. He said he doesn't buy the argument that the Flintstones are nostalgia.

If the game is a throwback to anything, he said it recalls the days of Joe Camel, the suave cartoon front man for cigarettes whose career ended under criticism that he made smoking look cool to kids.

"It's inappropriate," he said. "If we've had the same criticism about hooking people on cigarettes by using a cartoon character, then we should have the same concern about using the Flintstones."

Drawing the line

Texas isn't blazing a trail. In recent years, several states have run games featuring animated or cartoon characters such as the Jetsons, Pink Panther, Betty Boop and Beetle Bailey. Other states have run theme games tied to movie releases like "Star Wars" and "The Incredible Hulk."

The games belong to an increasingly popular class of instant-win tickets that showcase pop-culture brands. The themes vary widely and include everything from games that feature NBA teams and Harley-Davidson motorcycles to TV shows such as "Deal or No Deal" and "American Idol."

Those games, known in the business as licensed properties, have grown as aging state lotteries struggle with budget demands and drooping sales for traditional games.

"Lotteries have found that licensed games are a way to do some things, including attracting new players or those who have stopped playing," said Steve Saferin, president of MDI Entertainment, which licenses pop-culture brands and makes them available to state lotteries.

In addition to the Flintstones and the Jetsons, the company offers a long line of family games such as Battleship, Clue, Monopoly, Scrabble, Twister and Uno.

The company, a subsidiary of Scientific Games, has been a driving force behind the rise of such games. Based in Alpharetta, Ga., the company acquired its first licensed property for a lottery game in 1996 and has rapidly expanded its portfolio. It holds rights to about 300 branded games, with the lottery tickets worth an estimated $6.3 billion worldwide.

Saferin said he and the original property owners are "very, very conscious" of which brands might appeal to children and diligently avoid using those themes for lotteries.

"I draw a pretty big line between these kinds of properties and a property like ‘Star Wars,' which was marketed as a game when the movie came out," he said. "It was heavily marketed as a kids' movie."

Exactly where to draw that line is an open question. Advertising guidelines for state lotteries say that states should not use symbols or language primarily intended to appeal to children.

"The use of animation should be monitored to ensure that characters are not associated with animated characters on children's programs," according to the guidelines from the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

Passailaigue, the group's president, said the guidelines are not hard rules and it's up to states to decide whether games seem appropriate.

Passailaigue, who also directs the South Carolina lottery, said the Flintstones game wouldn't pass muster in his state.

In Indiana, which was among the first three states to sell scratch-offs featuring the Jetsons last year, lottery spokesman Andrew Reed said he heard no criticism about the game. Like the Flintstones, the Jetsons initially aired on primetime TV, and he said the futuristic cartoon still attracts an adult audience.

"The Jetsons was not a Saturday morning cartoon program," he said. "It appeals to our nostalgic players."

These days, the Flintstones and the Jetsons show frequently on Cartoon Network's Boomerang channel, which is devoted to classic cartoons. To some, that makes the scratch-offs a clear violation of the guidelines.

"They're skirting the line," said lottery watchdog Gerald Busald, a mathematics professor at San Antonio College. "I think that's pretty straightforward."

Gambling opponents see the cartoon and board game themes as dangerous.

Alissa Sklar, senior researcher at the International Centre for Youth Gambling in Montreal, said studies show that about 6 percent of adolescents are pathological gamblers, and 13 percent are at risk of developing a problem - twice as high as the rate for adults. But because gambling doesn't carry the same stigma as drug and alcohol abuse, kids who struggle with the problem often go without notice, she said.

Research also shows that parents frequently buy lottery tickets for their children and the games are popular stocking stuffers during the holidays.

Sklar's group started pressing lotteries five years ago to stop instant-win games with kid-friendly images like snowmen and Santa Claus, but with mixed success. She said the emerging trend of games like the Flintstones and family board games is deceptively unsafe.

A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2003 found that 10 percent to 13 percent of children between 14 and 17 reported that they had bought lottery tickets within the last month.

"The familiar images make these products seem like they're comforting," Sklar said. "These are the kinds of games you play at home around the fireplace with Grandma. They don't seem risky. But they are."

Bigger risks

Last year, Texas borrowed another page right out of history and revived Scratchman, a goofy action hero in red tights and a cape whose career as the lottery's pitchman ended under criticism that he played to children's tastes.

In 1997, the year RJ Reynolds put Joe Camel out to pasture for the same reason, Texas lawmakers killed Scratchman and slashed the lottery's advertising budget by $10 million. Then, last year, the lottery brought him back as a $1 scratch-off. Unlike the prime of his career, when he appeared on TV ads to peddle an array of scratch-offs, there was no marketing hype and the ticket didn't sell well.

Although Scratchman's return went virtually unnoticed, the lottery commission faced controversy last year when Texas offered a $50 scratch-off, the most expensive on the market. The game's success made up for slumping sales of other tickets and drove a fourth-quarter recovery for the year.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, views the cartoon games and the shift to pricier scratch-offs as signs that the lottery is straining to make money and using more predatory methods to do it.

"They're getting pressure to increase revenues," Shapleigh said. "They said, ‘Let's go to a younger audience.' That's what happened there."

Since 2002, instant-win game sales have jumped by 48 percent as a result of a commission plan that called for a wider variety of scratch-offs with shorter runs and more expensive tickets. To keep interest fresh, the commission introduces about 100 instant-win games a year, with about 80 on the shelves at a time, including more branded games.

While traditional games take months for the state to develop, scratch-offs are easier to pull from the ready lineup and take less time to prepare. The strategy has enabled Texas to increase total sales, but it hasn't translated into a surge in revenue for state coffers.

States must pay a premium to companies that run the instant games, and after payouts to players the profit margin on scratch-offs is less - about 25 to 40 percent compared with about 50 percent for traditional games. Records show that since 2002, total sales rose from $2.9 to $3.7 billion, while the amount of revenue pumped into education from the lottery has remained relatively stagnant, hovering around $1 billion a year.

At the same time, however, fewer Texans are playing lottery games.

"They're taking bigger risks to keep the same amount of money coming in," said Coleman, the state representative whose district is largely made up of low-income people. "We're bringing in the same revenue with half the amount of players. It's an increasing burden on a few players."

Lottery spokesman Heith said the Flintstones game has prompted just one complaint from a constituent in the Wichita Falls district of Rep. David Farabee. And Farabee said he was satisfied with the agency's explanation.

Most of the Flintstones tickets - about 87 percent - already have sold. The game offers 1 in 4.10 odds of winning a prize with rewards ranging from $2 to $20,000. The game has sold well. Only two of the top 15 prizes remain, and Heith said the game soon will close.

"I feel confident that we do the best we can do to generate as much revenue as responsibly as possible," Heith said.

But Coleman and Shapleigh said the silence shouldn't be interpreted as approval. The games have gone without complaint for a simple reason: Nobody noticed until now. In the next legislative session, Shapleigh said he plans to take action that would define guidelines for which games are appropriate for Texas.

"Marketing gambling to children raises serious moral issues about predatory state-sponsored media," he said. "I know several senators who'll join us to stop it."

Until then, however, the lottery has its own plans. This week, it started selling the latest branded game, this time with a summer movie tie-in. The theme: Indiana Jones.

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