Betting on laughs

by Mark Tungate , Adforum

Betting can be a risky business. So can making ads about it, as Publicis Conseil in Paris recently discovered.

Publicis has launched two ads for the French bookmaker PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain), which has handled horseracing bets since 1930, later diversifiying into other sports. Its humorous advertising always carries the slogan: "On parie que vous allez gagner" - "We bet you're going to win."

The latest ads suggest that betting is not always without consequences. One of them shows the Captain of the Titanic betting that he can steer the ship with his eyes closed. The rest is history.

The other ad has caused a bit of a furore in the United States. It shows a couple of cops on duty at a street parade. One of them bets his colleague he can twirl his pistol around his finger three times, "like a cowboy". But the gun accidentally goes off. Then we discover that it's November 22 1963 - and the cop has just shot Kennedy. The spot went global, thanks to the internet, and sparked off controversy in the United States. "Tasteless", said the New York Daily News. "Talk about a gamble," said the Huffington Post.

 "We made the spot for a French audience," points out Olivier Altmann, Worldwide Chief Creative Officer at Publicis. "It went down really well when we tested it here and the response since has been enthusiastic. Most viewers find it very funny. But the internet means that ads don't stay in one country any more."

He observes that humour is personal as well as cultural. "You can't expect everyone to laugh at the same thing. But actually, some of the reactions to the spot in the States have been positive.  There have been comments like, 'Come on, guys - let's not be so politically correct'."

The PMU campaign is aimed at a younger audience who may not have considered betting. It reminds them that betting is fun. "It's universal - we've all said 'I bet you...' at some point."

One unexpected consequence of the debate is that the PMU, a very French brand, is now achieving international fame. Ironically, the ads were shot by an American director, Jake Szymanski, who's also worked on Saturday Night Live.  The dialogue is in English, which also explains their global reach.

Olivier adds: "We gave them a cartoonish feel, to underline the fact that we're not trying to depict reality." The agency certainly didn't set out to offend anybody. "It's just a slightly dark humour. I think most people are open minded. There are plenty of ads featuring Moses and other religious figures. You can't take these things too seriously."