Nathan Hindmarsh, insidious advertising and normalising problem gambling

Recent problem gambling campaigns may implicitly advertise for the very product they are trying to warn consumers off. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The radio spot begins with ex-rugby league star Nathan Hindmarsh discussing his struggles with gambling:

People might have thought, “Nathan Hindmarsh he’s got it made, he’s got everything”, but in reality, I was struggling with the pokies.

The listener sympathises with Hindmarsh’s plight, while admiring his candour. He is “angry, frustrated and disappointed”. Although he “didn’t hit rock bottom”, Hindmarsh says: “it’s good to be normal”. In a bizarre twist, Hindmarsh’s voice is followed by another: “if gambling isn’t fun anymore, ask for help at your local club”.

Astonishingly, this is not a community service or government announcement but an advertisement for Clubs NSW: it is as though the umbrella body for pubs and clubs in NSW are saying “come into our club and tell us why you should not be allowed into our club”. There is a good reason Alcoholics Anonymous meetings don’t take place in the upstairs room of the local pub.

Hindmarsh’s statement that “it’s good to be normal” clearly stands out. Is it “normal” in Australian culture to spend money on pokies, even if not deemed a “problematic” amount? The Clubs NSW advertisement will be heard by far more “normal” than “problem” gamblers, revealing it merely as a promotion for gambling.

Its strangely perverse logic provides a solution to a problem cloaked within multiple factors, which tend toward the negation of a solution and the exacerbation of a problem. This ad is part of a larger campaign by Clubs NSW - “ClubSAFE” - to include clubs as “part of the solution” to problem gambling, as explained on their website.

The idea that Clubs NSW, a corporate entity which promotes the commercial profits of clubs, would try to reduce poker machine turnover (one of their constituents’ primary sources of profit) is so self-evidently preposterous that it barely warrants mention. Close inspection of the language on their website confirms that the whole campaign is a sham. The phrasing implicitly repudiates the existence of the “problem” which they claim they are trying to prevent.

The campaign website states that: “Nathan is in a unique position to inspire others to seek help having overcome his own problem with gambling”. “Problem with gambling” particularises the issue, making it about Nathan Hindmarsh and his issue specifically. The language “problem with gambling” distances the act from the gambling industry. It disassociates gambling from its systemic link with “problematic” practises.

This method of insidious advertising is not limited to private corporations. In fact, the recent government advertisements of the Rudd government’s asylum seeker policy is one of the most exquisite examples. The caption addresses the myriad asylum seekers who, apparently, read Australian daily newspapers in their countries of residence or transit. As these asylum seekers flip through The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald with their morning coffee, they will read that they will not receive a warm welcome if they wind up on Australia’s shores.

The government has run advertisements in the Australian media to ‘spruik’ their asylum seeker policy. Lauren Gianoli

The most troubling aspect is not the actual message or campaign, but rather the advertisement’s assumption of the logic of the open secret. Unlike the Hindmarsh ad, it is smugly transparent about its covert function, suggesting a message of: “why does it matter if we lie to you especially, if (we think) the lie is what you want to hear?”

As has been widely noted, the ad blatantly targets people already living (freely) in Australia and not newcomers to our shores, given it is in a local paper. The message is not addressed to asylum seekers but voting Australians. Clearly, the ad appeals to the public paranoia in the few marginal seats required to win the upcoming election.

Deceptive strategy is part and parcel of advertising. All advertising relies on deception to a greater or lesser degree, through exaggeration, and, at a base level, the mystification of the commodity. In these cases though, there is no synthesis between the message of the ad and the desired outcome.

The message of the Hindmarsh ad is to gamble “normally”. However, if the ad is really targeted at gambling addicts as claimed, then “normal” gambling by definition is impossible. The asylum seeker ad claims to be targeted at people smugglers (and refugees) – but through its placement in a local paper, it is actually targeted at free, news-consuming (and voting) Australians.

In such cases, if the putative intention of the ads were to be fulfilled, it would result in a catastrophic self-effacement of the subjects – tantamount to Clubs NSW and the Australian Labor Party hacking off a limb.

Clubs NSW need problem gamblers. The ALP, in an election year, need boats, so as to enact self-definition against them. Readers, listeners and viewers ought to be aware of this kind of insidious advertising, a Faustian exchange, where the source of the problem is in fact selling the cure.