Commentary

California Lottery's Mentorship Campaign Is All Kinds Of Wrong

My second editor was the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor. He embraced the responsibility that came with tutoring naïve, eager-eyed Larry in the ways of journamalismness. He was not able, unfortunately, to embrace the responsibility that comes with being a reliable employee or human being.

He had me tell our boss that he was telecommuting so often that “telecommuting” became office code for “too fucked up to work.” He asked me to buy him some time for a in-person meeting scheduled to commence 30 minutes later in Baltimore; he made this request from a hotel room in Jersey City. One of our last contacts, such as it was, came when his wife left a message on my voice mail, inquiring about his whereabouts. He’d told her that we were meeting for dinner; I hadn’t seen or heard from him in at least a year.

I loved the guy - I still do - and recognize that he suffered from a profound illness, one which he has overcome. But when I think about the lessons he conveyed, I focus less on the diligence in sourcing and the scourge of overenthusiastic punctuation than I do on, say, making sure the guy in Washington Square from whom you buy your weed isn’t an undercover cop. He was the Michael Jordan of What Not To Do.

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Given that I have lived my life without sane professional guidance, I remain envious of anyone who has enjoyed the benefits of attentive, affectionate-in-a-non-creepy-way mentoring, whether from a higher-up, a teacher or a rodeo clown. I’ve always thought that such coaching - or counsel, or oversight, or however you want to characterize it - hasn’t received the attention one would think it might. Hey, I’d watch a show in which people I find interesting discuss the individuals who have guided and supported them along the way. Did Chrissie Hynde have a mentor? How about Tom Perrotta? Otto Porter?

Fortunately, this gaping content void has been filled by “Back to the Start,” a new mentor-riffic campaign from… the California Lottery? That can’t be correct. The California Lottery, as I understand it, is a lottery. Let me do a quick check.

Nope, it’s the California Lottery alright. The CA Lottery folks are proud about the percentage of lottery revenue that goes, without too many strings attached, to public schools in the state. “More money for schools, which educate children, who are our future” - if you have a problem with this, you probably have a problem with ice cream or low humidity or Tom Hanks.

The thinking behind the campaign appears to be that you can feel good about dropping a few bucks every week on Daily Derby or Fantasy 5, because the worst-case scenario is that 35 percent or so of your investment will go towards public education. And the best-case scenario? You’re rich! Stinking rich! And you learn, to your great joy, that you have long-lost cousins, many of whom would like to discuss investment opportunities.

This is insane. While it sure is noble of California to dedicate a chunk of its lottery revenue to schools (rather than to the salaries of lottery administrators), the bottom line remains that lotteries prey on the poor and desperate. You can dance your way around that any way you’d like - with a web series about mentoring, perhaps - but the reality can only be measured in degrees of ugliness.

As for the videos themselves, they’re perfectly okay. In one, the Haim sisters drop in on the teacher (and Larry David sound-alike) who inspired them. In another, the most recent, Guy Fieri does the same - and comes across as a genuinely decent and gracious guy, his efforts towards diabetifying the country notwithstanding.

But I personally can’t separate the campaign videos from the reality they attempt to whitewash. That’s not to say that the California Lottery is an evil entity intent on obfuscating the deviousness of its underlying mission, just that this particular feel-good approach hits me way, way, way wrong. Reasonable minds may disagree.

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