A bus stop in Silver Spring, Md., bears an ad for a Maryland Lottery scratch-off game. The Willy Wonka-themed game is not designed to appeal to children, the head of Maryland's lottery commission said. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Fernando Laguarda was on Metro not long ago when he saw an ad for scratch-off lottery tickets. The theme of the DC Lottery scratchers was the Racing Presidents, those colossally craniumed chief executives who race at Nationals games and make promotional appearances around town.

Laguarda cried foul. While the Racing Presidents aren’t exclusively the province of children, he thinks their childish appeal should preclude them from being associated with gambling. He wrote to me, curious what I thought.

I thought he was being a bit of a ninny. And then I drove past a bus shelter in Maryland that was adorned with the face of Gene Wilder as candymeister Willy Wonka. It was an ad for the Maryland Lottery’s Willy Wonka Golden Ticket scratch-off game.

I began to suspect Laguarda might be on to something.

Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a kids’ book. Willy Wonka is a kids’ character. Suddenly, those Racing Presidents didn’t look so benign, either. Are our lottery agencies knowingly targeting kids, hoping to attract them to gambling?

To put it another way: Are colorful, cartoonish Racing Presidents and Willy Wonka scratchers the alcopops and fruit-flavored vape pens of the lottery world?

I contacted the two lottery agencies and they said no. Oh, good, okay then. . . .

But, you know, let’s explore this a little more.

Gordon Medenica, director of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, said he was actually a little reticent when first approached by the company that created the Willy Wonka scratch-off, Scientific Games of Las Vegas.

“Frankly, we avoided it for some period of time,” he said. “My concern was still mainly just a personal thing: Isn’t this a children’s brand? Shouldn’t we be avoiding something like this?”

What changed Medenica’s mind were assurances from Scientific Games that Willy Wonka was no longer a children’s character. Many casinos, they reminded him, have Willy Wonka-branded slot machines.

“The adults who play the games have a fond memory of that movie, but in fact it has almost zero resonance with children today, oddly enough,” Medenica said.

Medenica said they work hard to police the marketing of their games. After a complaint from the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), Maryland Lottery pulled a radio spot that featured Santa Claus talking about buying lottery tickets.

Keith Whyte, who heads the NCPG, said there’s a good reason to be extra careful when it comes to gambling and kids.

“Adults with serious gambling problems report that they first started betting for money between 10 and 12 years old,” he told me.

Scratch-off tickets are a special problem. They’re often bought by clueless parents who see them as a bit of harmless fun to stick in a birthday card or a Christmas stocking.

The Nationals told me to talk with Major League Baseball, which handles the licensing rights for all 30 clubs. A person at MLB who asked not to be quoted by name said the Racing Presidents appeal to all fans, and there is no intent to market a ticket for children. Kids can’t buy the product anyway, he said.

The DC Lottery had this to say in an email: “Lotteries often partner with well-known brands to develop games that have niche consumer appeal. While baseball is loved by fans of all ages, the DC Lottery is very careful in developing products and is cognizant of not marketing to persons not of legal age to play.”

Both agencies stressed that people under 18 aren’t allowed to buy lottery tickets in the first place. Of course, juveniles aren’t supposed to buy cigarettes, either, but in the 1990s, the cartoon character Joe Camel grew the Camel brand among juveniles.

Whyte said gambling products such as these come close to violating the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries’guidelines, which stipulate: “Advertising should not contain symbols nor language that are primarily intended to appeal to minors or those under the legal purchase age.”

The word “primarily” is doing a lot of work there.

Said Whyte: “The Willy Wonka ticket is something the National Council is going to examine more seriously.”

Whyte noted the ultimate irony: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is the story of “a family literally forgoing food to essentially buy a lottery ticket that makes all their dreams come true,” he said. “I can see why it’s a powerful image for the marketers. But it’s also a powerful description of the depths that people will go to fulfill their addiction.”

Here’s an idea for a design: a silver blank underneath which is either the word “Winner” or, a lot more frequently, “Loser.”

Not as much “fun” as a grinning Teddy Roosevelt or Willy Wonka, I guess, but a lot more honest.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.