This weekend I was at Sky City in Auckland. After dinner, a quest for Ice Cream sent me and my friends into the casino. There was no ice cream there. We exited the casino and left the building, walking past a series of personalised number plates stapled to pristine motor vehicles and I recalled something I had read in one of my favourite books, American Gods, written by Neil Gaiman:

“Entering the casino one is beset at every side by invitation – invitations such that it would take a man of stone, heartless, mindless, and curiously devoid of avarice, to decline them.

Listen: a machine gun rattle of silver coins as they tumble and spurt down into a slot machine tray and overflow onto monogrammed carpets is replaced by the siren clangor of the slots, the jangling, bippeting chorus swallowed by the huge room, muted to a comforting background chatter by the time one reaches the card tables, the distant sounds only loud enough to keep the adrenaline flowing through the gamblers’ veins.

There is a secret that the casinos possess, a secret they hold and guard and prize, the holiest of their mysteries. For most people do not gamble to win money, after all, although that is what is advertised, sold, claimed and dreamed. But that is merely the easy lie that allows the gamblers to lie to themselves, the big lie that gets them through the enormous, ever-open, welcoming doors.

The secret is this: people gamble to lose money. They come to casinos for the moment in which they feel alive, to ride the spinning wheel and turn with the cards and lose themselves, with the coins, in the slots. They want to know they matter. They brag about the nights they won, the money they took from the casino, but they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost. It’s a sacrifice, of sorts.”

Advertising and Gambling are twin engines of the same religion. Advertisers sacrifice vast amounts of money to the Advertising Gods in the hope that they’ll win big. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: “half of my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” It’s the calling card on the inept. But they also say (whoever “they” are) that you’ve gotta spend money to make money. So why do advertisers sacrifice money without any idea of what the return will be?

Billboard advertising

The reason is that advertising is a realm of sacrifice. In the same way that casinos beguile their victims with colour and noise and scent is the same way that advertising sells its counterfeit dreams. “Spend more! Spend more! Your advertising works (even though we can’t prove it)! If you stop sacrificing, everyone else who is will pull ahead. Is that what you want?”. It must be true; there’s thousands and thousands of advertising messages getting nailed into our heads every day, so someone must be winning.

Yes, someone is winning but it’s not you and it’s not your competitors either. The House always wins. Advertising Agencies, Media Buyers, PR companies, Design Ninja Shops, Web Thrillers… they’re all different rooms in the same House. They always win.

And you’ll always lose if you continue to believe that gamblers play to win; that there’s a box you should think out of; that people buy watches to tell the time; and that if 50% of your advertising is working then that's enough.