The first series of ITV1's game show Red or Black? was criticised for many things: glamorising gambling, dishing out huge sums of unearned money at a time of austerity, achieving low ratings and simply not being any good.
So you might have expected the show, produced by Simon Cowell's Syco TV, to stay out of trouble as it announced its return later this month. But the programme is under fire today for its choice of series two sponsor: "legal loan shark" company Wonga.com, which charges 4,214% APR for its short-term, payday loans.
The integrated sponsorship package includes broadcast, online and mobile and is part of Wonga’s wider "Straight Talking Money" campaign.
Stella Creasy, the Labour & Co-Operative MP for Walthamstow who campaigns for new regulation on payday loans, told RadioTimes.com: "Wonga are targeting shows like Red or Black? because they're now making millions of pounds out of some very vulnerable people. This is a different league of sponsorship deal compared to Wonga's previous efforts, designed to give them a veneer of responsibility. It's a strategy to detoxify their brand."
Although Simon Cowell and Red or Black?'s presenters, Ant and Dec, were not involved in negotiating the sponsorship deal, Creasy appealed to them to use their influence as the programme's most prominent talent: "I'm asking Ant and Dec to speak out," she said. "Wonga are trading off Ant and Dec's family-friendly image. It'll be their names and their voices preceding these adverts. And Simon Cowell has called for broadcasters to be responsible in the past."
RadioTimes.com understands that Syco agreed to the sponsorship before the deal was finalised by ITV.
Wonga.com operate within the law, but Creasy says the relevant law needs to be changed. "People are taking out these loans for basics: food, transport, rent. One in three payday loans are taken out to pay off another payday loan, because the cost of them spirals so quickly. We've got a million people in this country paying their mortgage using these loans. It's out of control.
"Until there's better regulation of the UK credit industry – most other countries have some form of capping on the cost of credit – people should be saying, we don't want to work with you."
A spokesman for Ant and Dec said: "The commercial sponsorship of Red Or Black? is not something Ant & Dec are involved in as presenters of the show."
Wonga.com replied to Creasy's comments as follows: "We're usually kept very busy building Europe's fastest-growing technology business and making sure that at least nine out of ten customers continue recommending us, but sometimes we like to launch new, straight-talking sponsorships too. If that gets a few people talking and tweeting, we welcome that."
An ITV spokesperson said: "Wonga is a well-known brand and the sponsorship of Red or Black? is fully compliant with Ofcom regulations."
On announcing the deal, Simon Daglish, ITV's group commercial sales director, said: “Red or Black? was ITV1's highest-performing entertainment launch in five years and we are very excited about its return to ITV screens. We’re delighted to welcome Wonga on board as part of a multi-platform sponsorship for the all new second series of this game show extravaganza.”
Darryl Bowman, head of marketing at Wonga.com, added: “We’re pleased to be supporting such a big show which, like our service, has been a hit with a mainstream audience from the beginning."
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the service was increasingly concerned about the number of people seeking help with debt who have taken out a payday loan. "Four times as many people are coming to us for debt advice with payday loans compared with the last year," Guy said. "Our evidence suggests a pattern of people in long-term financial difficulty with other debts."
The new series of Red or Black? will no longer give contestants on every show the chance to win £1m on a 50/50 game of chance: the nightly prize will now be £500,000, although a new rollover system means this will potentially increase to as much as £3.5m.