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    An Old Dice Game Catches On Again, Pushed by P&G

    In Bunco, It Sees a Way To Pitch Heartburn Drug; Living the Joanne Lifestyle

    Wall Street Journal / January 30, 2007; Page A1

    (See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

    Arriving at a home in Cincinnati for an evening of a dice game called bunco, Clarissa Niese was greeted with an extensive array of food and drink. "I could immediately see the relevancy to heartburn," says Ms. Niese, an assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble Co.

    Now P&G's over-the-counter heartburn medication Prilosec is aggressively latching on to a spreading suburban trend and bringing bunco into the big time. The result: An old pastime played with three dice now has four regional tournaments, a nationally televised Bunco World Championship, licensing deals and a dossier of sophisticated market research.

    [L C]

    It's a natural fit for Prilosec OTC, whose ads have long focused on a certain core consumer: the middle-aged woman who loves to socialize. "That's where her passion -- and her heartburn -- lie," says Mauricio Troncoso, Prilosec OTC's marketing director. P&G figures that 70% of frequent-heartburn sufferers are women.

    P&G studies this consumer so closely that it has a name for her: Joanne. And in order to observe her in her natural habitat, P&G urges everyone who works with the brand to participate in activities Joanne enjoys.

    Studying Joanne has led Prilosec OTC marketers to attend Nascar races, camp in RVs, travel by Greyhound, listen to country music and tailgate at NFL games.

    Bunco is typically played in groups of 12, with four people seated at three tables. Players toss three dice to try to roll the same number as the round: for example, ones in the first round, twos in the second, through round six. Points and an additional roll are earned for at least one die matching the round's number. When all three dice come up the same as the round's number, the player yells "bunco!"

    Players usually pony up a small donation or gift for the kitty, which is usually later divided between the player with the most rounds won and the player who rolled the most "buncos." Often the least successful player is rewarded, too.

    A Tip

    Acting on a tip, Ms. Niese emailed the entire Prilosec OTC division in the summer of 2005, asking whether anyone knew somebody who played bunco. A man in product development responded, reporting that his wife was an avid fan. Ms. Niese arranged to tag along to the next game.

    Amid all the conversation and laughter, she made some observations. "They weren't there to buy Tupperware, they were there to support each other," she says. "The game doesn't require much thought, it's really just an excuse for them to get together -- and showcase their favorite food."

    Ms. Niese noted how and why conversation topics came up during play. "If someone thought your shirt was really cute, they started talking about it, and the store," she says. "My takeaway was that if Prilosec OTC wasn't going to be present visually, I didn't feel it would really be top of mind."

    In response to her report, P&G, which is known for its methodical research, dispatched people to study the game and its players. The results surprised them: About 59 million women in the U.S. have played bunco, with 21 million playing on a regular basis. Six out of 10 women said they made buying decisions based on recommendations from members of their bunco group.

    Another welcome piece of research found that about one-third of women who regularly play bunco suffer from frequent heartburn. Further study seemed to corroborate Ms. Niese's hunch. When a bunco player is exposed to the Prilosec OTC brand, her "purchase intent" increases by 40%.

    P&G also tracked down Leslie Crouch, a Newport Beach, Calif., entrepreneur who founded the World Bunco Association 11 years ago, "basically in my garage," she says. A bunco player herself, Ms. Crouch sensed a business opportunity in the then little-known game and has spent the past decade purchasing trademarks and Web addresses associated with the word "bunco." Ms. Crouch also sells bunco kits, "Bunco Babe" T-shirts and, in 2004, published a bunco party cookbook.

    Last year, Ms. Crouch and P&G co-hosted the first Bunco World Championship, held in Las Vegas. Online registration for the 1,000 seats was filled within days, and an additional 1,000 players formed a waiting list.

    The Oxygen cable-TV network aired an hourlong special on the two-day championship, showing players rolling dice on purple tablecloths identical to the purple of Prilosec's packaging. The winner, Susan Stonehouse, of Camarillo, Calif., took home a $50,000 prize. Following the championship, P&G signed a contract with Ms. Crouch to license her bunco trademarks through 2008.

    [bunco] Barb Doud of Topeka, Kan., champion of the Bunco Regional Tournament in Kansas City, won $1,000 and a trip to the Bunco World Championship in Las Vegas this March.

    Ms. Crouch's research into the history of bunco found that it likely began in the U.S. during the Gold Rush, when swindlers came to San Francisco with the fast-paced game, then played with dice or cards, to con laborers out of their money. Bunco parlors eventually formed, leading to the use of the word "bunco" as a synonym for financial scams.

    Ms. Crouch says her 98-year-old grandmother fondly recalled playing bunco in Chicago parlors during the 1930s, when players carefully avoided the notice of police "bunco squads" who raided the games.

    'Bunco Is Therapy'

    Though bunco dwindled in popularity from the 1940s through the 1980s, it has come back in recent years, particularly in suburbia.

    "My social life revolves around bunco," says 53-year-old Andie Mills of Villa Park, Calif., who plays the popular dice game with three different groups. "For me, bunco is therapy."

    Earlier this month, Prilosec OTC began its "Bunco World Tour" with a tournament in Kansas City, Mo., attended by 135 players. P&G had a pharmacist on hand to answer questions about heartburn and pass out samples of Prilosec OTC. Another P&G brand, Folgers, passed out free coffee, including its indigestion-friendly line, "Simply Smooth." Bartenders started pouring drinks around 11:30 a.m.

    Anna Rentschler and two fellow members of the "Mexico Bunco Babes" drove about four hours through a bad winter storm from their homes in Mexico, Mo. Wearing matching beaded bunco bracelets and denim shirts with "bunco" embroidered across the back, the women were struck by the intensity of the other players.

    "They play a lot faster here than we do at home," said 54-year-old Ms. Rentschler, who works at a bank. "We usually talk a lot more."

    In the decade or so that her group has played together, members have helped one another through the deaths of friends and a spouse, divorce, infertility, new jobs, high-school and college graduations and planning daughters' weddings. Husbands are never invited, Ms. Rentschler says. "What on earth would we talk about then?"

    Food and alcohol are central to the gatherings, Ms. Rentschler explains, with Snickers Salad being among the group's favorites: a concoction of Cool Whip, marshmallow crème, cream cheese, chopped Snickers bars and apples. She concedes heartburn is an occasional hazard.

    Betty Johnson, nicknamed "Bunco Betty" by the five members of her bunco group who joined her at the event, says she didn't mind all the Prilosec OTC marketing surrounding the tournament. Between rounds, 54-year-old Ms. Johnson snatched leftover tablecloths, napkins and plastic cups branded with Prilosec OTC Bunco World Tour for the game she was hosting at her home in Topeka, Kan., the following week.

    Write to Ellen Byron at

    Corrections & Amplifications:

    An estimated 17.4 million women in the U.S. have played bunco before, with seven million playing regularly, according to Procter & Gamble Co. This article incorrectly said that 59 million women had played bunco and 21 million played regularly, based on information supplied by P&G. The company attributes its error to inaccurate calculations.