Ray Winstone to be silenced
The UK has a reputation for its tolerant and relaxed attitude to gambling. Indeed, most Brits are rendered dumbfounded by all the fuss and political debate that has been taking place in Senates across the US on the topic over the hows and whys of gambling reform. However, that attitude is partly down to the mature and robust regulatory framework that is in place. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because gambling is part of life in the UK, it is not closely and strictly regulated.
One area that is a matter of constant debate is the question of advertising. The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) cites evidence that there is a causal link between advertising and problem gambling, and a survey of 12,000 showed widespread public support for a complete advertising ban.
“No different to tobacco”
Christina Marriott is RSPH’s Chief Executive, and it is fair to say that she does not share the relaxed attitude towards gambling for which her nation is famous. In fact, she suggests that as an activity that can be both addictive and harmful, it should be treated in the same way as tobacco, with a blanket ban on advertising.
To impartial ears, the comparison sounds more than a little extreme. The operative word is “can,” but medical practitioners would certainly argue that smoking is both more addictive and more harmful than placing a bet on a sporting event or having a game of blackjack in a casino.
Nonetheless, the majority of those surveyed were supportive of a total ban on advertising and only 14 percent actively objected to the idea. More than three quarters felt that advertising should be prohibited prior to the 9PM “watershed” before which advertisements for other potentially harmful products like junk food are soon to be banned.
Current rules and practices
As things stand, TV commercials for online casinos and betting sites are restricted to post-watershed hours. Furthermore, they are prohibited from featuring anyone who is, or appears to be, below the age of 21. However, the sports sponsorship aspect of advertising blurs these lines.
Here, there are certainly parallels with tobacco advertising from years gone by. We can all remember the Formula 1 cars from the 1980s that were liveried like cigarette packets on wheels. In cricket and snooker, the major tournaments had long-standing sponsorship arrangements with cigarette brands, and the names stuck in people’s minds for years after the deals ended.
Today, it is the same story with gambling brands, and soccer has specifically come under the spotlight. It is by far the most popular sport in the country and attracts millions of TV viewers every week. At the last count, eight Premier League teams had shirts bearing the logos of gambling companies.
The recent popularity of Euro 2020, in which England made it to the final placed an inevitable spotlight on the debate, especially as the TV coverage was watched by so many children. The gambling companies foresaw the danger and potential backlash, and so agreed in advance of the tournament on a voluntary “whistle to whistle” code, whereby live TV ads would not be shown during the game or in the five minutes before or after. However, critics say this level of self-regulation is not enough.
Is it harmful?
In the US, gambling is undergoing a change of image, especially in the area of sports betting. Once seen as an underground activity that was morally questionable, it is rapidly becoming an accepted part of enjoying a sports event. The vast majority of people placing a bet do not do so because they are trying to pick a winner and make some money. They simply put a couple of dollars on the Browns or the Mets as an act of support and a tangible way to share the spoils of victory if the result goes their way.
In the UK, attitudes are also changing, but in the opposite direction. Critics say that the laissez-faire attitude has done more than normalize gambling, and that advertising sends out the message that placing a bet is a necessary part of enjoying the game. Clearly, if that is true, Ms Marriott’s warnings could come back to haunt us.
As its name suggests, the Coalition Against Gambling Ads (CAGA) has already made its mind up on the question. However, it has brought together some compelling evidence to support its stance. For example, it argues that TV advertising encourages vulnerable people to gamble when they otherwise would not do so, and that by focusing on trigger words like “free bets” it influences perceptions of risk.
So far, most of the debate has surrounded TV advertising. This is certainly the easier to regulate but as far as exposure is concerned, it is the tip of the iceberg. The fact is that across every industry, advertising spend is shifting away from traditional TV and towards the online world. That is where businesses can more accurately target their chosen audience – and at a fraction of the price of a TV campaign.
Data gathered by UK gambling charity GambleAware shows that gambling companies allocate more than 50 percent of their marketing spend to online advertising, with 20 percent devoted to affiliates like tipsters and just 13 percent on TV advertising.
Curbs on advertising will inevitably come. But a complete ban could be a more complicated proposition than the likes of RSPH and CAGA anticipate.