Remember Walter J. Palmer, the American dentist who traveled to Zimbabwe in July and paid some $50,000 to kill Cecil the lion, a beloved big cat who was lured from a wildlife refuge by local guides? The uproar that killing caused put the trophy hunter in quite a quagmire. Palmer didn’t return to work until the first week of September, according to news reports, and his practice on Yelp continues to be hammered with comments such as “Die a painful death, Walter, but go bankrupt before you do” and “Find another dentist, one who isn’t a horrible person.”
Palmer has kept pretty quiet since returning from Zimbabwe. He maintains that the hunt was legal, and he told the New York Times, “My staff and my patients support me, and they want me back.” A couple of reports in September said he was still in hiding, and that another man named Walter J. Palmer was fielding lots of angry calls aimed at the lion killer.
So it surprised the heck out of us when a recent press release from an Irish bookmaker called Paddy Power suggested Palmer had become the company’s adviser for betting on the Rugby World Cup, which continues through October.
“Remember the American Dentist? The guy who shot the lion. The Big Game Hunter. Well, he’s back baby!” the press release from Paddy Power shouts (with curious capitalization, I might add). “After coming out of hiding, the blood hungry tracker has turned Rugby World Cup Tipster for bookmaker Paddy Power.”
Here is Paddy Power’s American dentist:
And here is Walter J. Palmer:
Yeah. Not the same guy. The facial structure — and screaming white teeth — are similar, but that’s where it ends.
My first question was “How’d the company get away with it?” I have covered and studied law (and also learned about it to cover entertainment, the arts, and criminal justice), so I have a pretty good idea. The press release fails to mention Walter J. Palmer, Cecil, or Zimbabwe by name. It also fails to mention the date of the kill, and it makes only vague reference to the act itself. Also, the character who appears in the Big Game Hunter videos identifies himself by saying, “Hi, I’m an American dentist” — could be any American dentist, the legal defense might go. So Paddy Power stole nothing. It just borrowed from the public consciousness, and I suspect this campaign will go unchallenged. A damaged reputation is what Palmer might sue for, and one could argue his reputation couldn’t be more damaged by this.
My second questions was “Why?” Well, if you’re a bookmaker, you need to lure people to your site, and you probably won’t let bad taste or offending people who’ll never use your service get in the way of that. To be fair, the video is more juvenile and silly — like a Will Ferrell or Rob Schneider film — than gruesome. Curiously, the Paddy Power website says no animals were harmed in making the videos. Still, it’s a dark-spirited effort. It not only makes light of an event that saw the end of a beloved lion and upset thousands of people, it also inches toward pretending to be the person who caused the pain and suffering.
You can argue that Palmer deserves ridicule, and I would agree. But this isn’t ridicule. It’s a company that has no stake in trophy hunting, dentistry, or anyone’s reputation. It’s harnessing the power of a terrible act. Paddy Power wants to persuade more people to risk money on sporting events, not publicly admonish a dentist for killing a lion. I doubt the company cares anything about Cecil the lion — or Walter J. Palmer’s reputation, for that matter. To me, that moves the Paddy Power campaign from just desserts for Walter J. Palmer to just weird and a sad for all of us.
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About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.