Paddy Power shouldn’t play ball with Kim Jong-Un

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Paddy Power pulling marketing stunts is nothing new but there’s something about their plan to stage a basketball match in North Korea that makes Emmet Ryan feel rather uneasy.

Better get the full disclosure out of the way already. For three and a half years I worked in the online betting industry. Paddy Power were not rivals of the company that employed me but it would be remiss of me not to mention this due to any potential conflicts.

Paddy Power will stage a basketball game in Pyongyang in the new year with a team of non-North Koreans taking on the North Korean national team. The PR stunt comes from the people who brought you a pile of headline grabbing but mostly socially harmless escapades over the past decade. Dennis Rodman is likely to be involved because the Worm needs the money. Lots of people will be up in arms and Paddy Power will get the reaction they want.

None of this is surprising. The only issue really left to be decided is whether conventional basketball rules will be used or the freaky ones conceived by the North Koreans back in the 1990s, Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-Il were both big fans of the Jordan era Bulls. That’s where the Worm comes in. Rodman went to Pyongyang with Vice magazine earlier this year, generating a ton of publicity for all parties, and Paddy Power later brought him to the Vatican when the papal succession was under way. That didn’t grab as many headlines so the bookmaker is bring the Worm, or at least his game, back to the place he made the most noise in 2013 to get a big reaction.

The difference between putting logos on hurleys or defacing historical monuments (which was not cool by the way) and going into North Korea is that Paddy Power are getting a cheap laugh out of a rather awful place. This site isn’t big into political moralizing but generally speaking, is it really worth the PR buzz when an authoritarian regime keeps a couple of 100,000 of its citizens in prison camps? When the former girlfriend and then uncle of its leader were executed, mainly because of who they were? When pretty much everything about the people that you are doing business with would make a Bond villain blush?

It’s no accident that it’s Paddy Power doing this. Without a North American operation to speak of, the bookmaker doesn’t need to worry about backlash. Bovada, formerly Bodog, and Bet365 wouldn’t go near this because they have a lot of people with political muscle at their backs that would make a lot of capital by hitting them hard after doing business with Kim Jong-Un. Whatever your views on the morals of gambling, this site is obviously fine with it, any politician in Canada who wanted to push through the stalled Comartin bill on online gambling would have an awful lot of ammo if Bet365 tried to pull this off.

Ignore the safety net enjoyed by Paddy Power for a minute. Sometimes it comes down to thinking if something just ain’t right. Nothing bad will happen to the bookmaker as a result of this jaunt, they’ll get some good publicity and an awful lot of their punters will find it amusing. Just like the realization Ron Burgundy has about what’s not news, someone in Clonskeagh needs to get that this isn’t marketing.

If anything they should look inside themselves and ask if they have run out of ideas? If going to new extremes is the only way Paddy Power can now be creatively wacky and on-brand, maybe they need to reassess what they are doing. Is there a plan? I’m sure there was but right now it seems to fundamentally be ‘what’s the next crazy thing we can do?’ and is missing the addendum ‘that will help grow our brand’ because this does seem to be scraping the barrel. It’s not a ‘how can you top this?’ only to be astounded by something even more disturbing. It’s about ‘how can we surprise people next?’

The logos on the hurleys and that awful defacing of the Uffington horse worked because they were unexpected. They surprised people. No-one is exactly shocked by Paddy Power sending the Worm back to Pyongyang. Yes there is plenty of room for disgust but its not shock value if there is no value to be gained from the shock. Count your column inches and clicks. If that’s what your branding has become, well welcome back to the masses because you’re no longer some unique outlier. You’re just another big gun who does what we expect them to do, only now you’re doing it with a most vile entity.

Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.

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