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Chris Jones

New Hard Rock Billboard Lampoons Regulators

23 September 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Though it stands more than eight miles away, a not-so-tongue-in-cheek billboard towering above the Hard Rock Hotel could cast a heavy shadow on Friday's Nevada Gaming Commission meeting near downtown Las Vegas.

State regulators and Hard Rock representatives are scheduled to discuss at the Sawyer Building recent complaints that the edge-pushing gaming company's risqué advertising efforts reflect poorly on the gaming industry and state.

Arguments and accusations covering everything from free speech to the moral and economic well-being of the community will no doubt bombard the commission chambers, but several sources who've followed the issue insist the Hard Rock is already mocking regulators with its latest promotional effort.

Several weeks ago, Hard Rock erected a billboard that depicts a cartoon cat, two rabbits and a wood-chewing beaver next to its hotel-casino at 4455 Paradise Road.

While the sign touts itself as "Another clean & inoffensive billboard from your friends at the Hard Rock," others claim it's simply a reprise of the suggestive content that led to the company's $300,000 Gaming Control Board settlement that was rejected by the Nevada Gaming Commission and then Friday's commission hearing.

"It's a pussy, a beaver and some bunnies, and we all know what bunnies do," Scott Robertson, creative director for local ad firm the Merica Agency, said Wednesday. "Because it's not so overt, maybe people are OK with that, but given that there's a looming controversy, it shocked me.

"To me, this is blatant thumbing their nose at the gaming commission."

That opinion was echoed by Patti Gerace, a Walker Furniture marketer who serves as executive board member of the Las Vegas Advertising Federation. She chuckled at the sign's use of animals and objects whose names are common euphemisms for genitalia or depict sexual activity.

"Because I know who they (Hard Rock) are and what they've portrayed in the past, I know what they're trying to say," Gerace said. "I see a beaver and some rabbits doing it. It's not very nice. ... It's clever, it's cute, but I still think people will find it offensive if they look at it in that way."

Robertson compared the billboard to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's "What happens here, stays here" campaign, which hints at untoward activities but never depicts them.

"It's up to our dirty minds to apply what we know that double meaning is," Robertson said of the Hard Rock billboard. "The fact that it's sort of rebelling by still being sexual, without being overtly sexual, intersects with the core values of the Hard Rock brand, which is sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

Frequent Hard Rock critic Michael Wixom contends the company's decision to flaunt a sex-charged message -- albeit it one veiled amid seemingly innocent cartoon characters -- threatens state gaming regulators' ability to govern Nevada's largest industry.

"It's beyond what I think is in good taste or you think is in good taste," said Wixom, a local attorney who founded the Main Street Billboard Committee advocacy group. "The minute you undermine the Gaming Control Board or Gaming Commission to any degree, you undermine what they've done over the last 40 years to create our community. ... It's something we have to be concerned about."

Despite the topic's subjectivity, Wixom said the commission is within its powers to regulate the ad content of gaming license holders. The American Civil Liberties Union, Nevada Resort Association and Hard Rock have countered such restrictions violate the First Amendment.

Another frequent Hard Rock critic was less bothered by the cartoon ad, however. Henderson resident Carole Gates said Wednesday the new billboard is better than past ads, which often showcased scantily clad women.

"If I had to chose between the two (approaches), I'd rather that they go with cutesy than the sexually explicit," said Gates, who serves on the national board of the Washington-based moral advocacy group American Mothers.

Gates recently drove past the billboard with three of her children, including two high school-age teens; none caught its sexual overtones.

"If they're going to be thumbing their nose at the gaming control board, which is obviously what they're doing, at least it's something that's not overt to the families of the community, to the children," Gates said. "I'm grateful for that. They could have done worse."

Hard Rock Hotel President Kevin Kelley and Nevada Gaming Commission Chairman Pete Bernhard could not be reached for comment Wednesday.