In the Super Bowl Ad Game, the House Wins

Times Staff Writer

Tourism officials are throwing a tantrum over the National Football League's refusal to run a provocative Las Vegas commercial during the Super Bowl.

But they admit that the brouhaha over the ad has generated more publicity for Las Vegas -- for free -- than a pricey Super Bowl ad might otherwise have garnered.

The NFL, which decides which ads can appear during the globally broadcast event, declined to run the Las Vegas promotion because of the city's connection to gambling. While gambling of various sorts is legal in 47 states, only Nevada allows sports betting.

Mayor Oscar Goodman accused the NFL of hypocrisy Thursday, noting that its Web site is operated by a company that posts Las Vegas' betting odds on professional football games.

The Las Vegas commercial makes no reference to gambling -- and instead boasts that people can behave here in ways that might embarrass them back home.

The commercial is one of six, produced for a 20-month, $58-million publicity blitz that's intended to tease viewers' imagination about the kinds of experiences available in Las Vegas.

The blacklisted Super Bowl commercial -- a 30-second spot that would have cost $2.1 million to air -- shows a glamorous, provocatively dressed woman getting into a limousine, talking suggestively to the driver and caressing herself, then emerging as a prim businesswoman. The commercial closes, "What happens here, stays here."

Another ad shows a female conventioneer getting hitched at a local wedding chapel and kissing her groom goodbye before she hustles back to work. A third ad shows a group of fellows, appearing hung over, wondering what happened to one of their missing friends the night before. A fourth shows a tourist writing a postcard, growing embarrassed and trying to erase it. Two others are still in production.

The commercials are financed by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to promote the gambling capital as a place for adventurous, sexy and maybe mischievous fun.

Officials said the ads, which began airing this week in Los Angeles and other regional markets, contain no reference to gambling because in Las Vegas, that's a given.

And there's the rub, NFL officials said.

"We have a long-standing contractual arrangement with our TV partners which prohibits advertising related to sports gambling and casino gambling," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "The perception of the integrity of the game is critical, and this type of advertising has the potential to negatively impact that perception."

The fact that the blacklisted commercial made no reference to casinos or gambling is irrelevant, he said. "Our basis for rejecting the ad is because Las Vegas is so synonymous with sports betting and gambling," he said.

The decision left the mayor fuming.

"These guys are more disingenuous than a $3 bill," Goodman said Thursday. "They're allowing commercials showing girls in red panties, and their own Web site is linked to another one that posts Vegas betting odds. How hypocritical can you get?"

McCarthy would not discuss any possible inconsistency in NFL policy, but he said the league "is comfortable with that [Internet] partnership."

Replied Goodman, "I intend to make them uncomfortable." He wants to sue the NFL.

Local marketing officials argued that although legal sports betting is unique to Nevada, casinos are in or near many cities with NFL teams, including San Diego, the host of the Jan. 26 Super Bowl.

"We're one of the leading resort and convention cities of the world, and we're trying to market all the amenities that make up our city," said Rossi Ralenkotter, executive vice president of the tourism promotion agency. "We should be able to use the Super Bowl to reach our potential customer base."

Billy Vassiliadis, principal of R&R; Partners, the firm that developed the ads, said he knew the NFL rejected ads referencing gambling, but thought this one would be acceptable.

"We're talking about the experience of Las Vegas besides gambling, of things people can do here and not get away with at home," he said. "These are Las Vegas stories, extrapolated from real-life stories."

Ralenkotter said the resulting news media coverage of the banned commercial "has had a cumulative effect that might have greater value than putting the commercial on the air."

The NFL agreed: "They certainly took a gamble on the ad and rolled the dice, and were able to generate tremendous publicity, perhaps more than if the spot had run during the game," McCarthy said, adding after a pause that the gambling analogy was unintended.

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