Lottery commercial redefines joy in spirit of Chicago Way

When it comes to greetings during the Winter Shopping Spree vaguely associated with the 25th of December, I guess I'm hopelessly old-fashioned.

I say "Merry Christmas."

Some will think me too retro. Too bad. I'm like Linus from the "Peanuts" cartoons. The birth of Christ is the reason for the season.

But if someone offers a "Happy Hanukkah" or "Merry Kwanzaa" -- even those timid souls with their safely corporate "Happy holidays" -- I thank them. They're being kind.

Yet the other day I was watching TV, and saw something astounding: a commercial for the Illinois Lottery, aimed at getting people to buy lottery tickets as gifts. It's sung to the much-beloved Christmas hymn "Joy to the World," which you'll hear in just about every church on Christmas Eve. Here are the new lyrics, as approved by the Illinois political bureaucrats:

Joy to that guy/who took away your futon

And the man who shampooed and conditioned

Your carpets

And the lady who constructed/Your amazing cat tower

Plus the butcher who sliced your beef paper thin

And the neighbor who rocks out softly after ten.

On screen, the carpet-cleaner guy kneels on a rug. He's happy. The cat's mistress is happy. The rocking neighbor (who whispers while singing) is so old, he probably remembers when Black Sabbath played the Amphitheatre. He's happy. The happy butcher slices the beef paper thin, so you can save on food costs and use the savings to buy him even more lottery tickets.

Then comes a revealing voice-over that speaks directly to the heart of The Chicago Way and invokes one of the pillars of Illinois politics:

Cash kickbacks.

"Joy someone with holiday scratch-offs from the Illinois Lottery," says a narrator. "Who knows? They might joy you back."

That's a kickback. You joy me, I joy you. Isn't that what contractors call it when they're caught on FBI surveillance tape bringing "joy" to politicians? One famous Chicago politician stored his "joy" in the freezer, right next to the rib-eyes and the lobster tails.

A Sun-Times story applauded the commercial, from the ad agency Energy BBDO and directed by a fellow named Aaron Ruell. As a piece of directing, as a technical matter, it's clean work.

I suppose they could have made a commercial using a secular Santa song, or something about drunken elves throwing snowballs and guzzling mulled wine. No one would care, except lawyers for the Snowman & Elf Collective. And no political bureaucrat would ever risk being condemned as insensitive by elves. Slapping Christianity, though, is another matter.

The hymn "Joy to the World" was written in 1719 by Englishman Isaac Watts. Many of you know how it begins:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

And Heaven and nature sing,

And Heaven and nature sing

No reference to carpets, beef or cash kickbacks. The responsibility of turning the hymn into a lottery commercial belongs to state government, because bureaucrats approved it and took your money and paid the ad agency.

Using a well-known song about Christ to sell lottery tickets on the backs of happy cats and beef was so amazing that we called Brian Hamer, director of the Illinois Department of Revenue, certain that he'd want to take all the credit. His secretary said he'd call back. He didn't. Later Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for Hamer, said he wouldn't comment.

After a day or two of calls, the Illinois political bureaucrats decided in their wisdom that lottery superintendent Jodie Winnett should take full credit, and they said she approved the ad, according to lottery spokesman Tracy Owens. But Winnett wasn't available for comment, either.

"We have gotten a lot of positive feedback," Owens said, mentioning that article in the Sun-Times business section.

But isn't the song about Christ?

"That is not the connection we were going for," Owens said. "This is a song that is in the public domain. It's about bringing joy into people's lives. That's the theme we were going for. Buying a lottery ticket is a way to thank someone for the little things they did throughout the year. It (the commercial) talks about bringing joy to people, and that's what the lottery was about.

"The words were changed up because," Owens said, "we did not want people to be offended."

That must be why the lottery used a deeply religious song and made a joke out of it to sell tickets. So they wouldn't offend. What joy.

I'll bet you can't wait for the commercials for those new state video poker machines. They'll need a new song to bring joy. What song will they use?

How about "Silent Night" or "Ave Maria"?

jskass@tribune.com
CHICAGO

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