Promotional Nightmares: part one

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New restrictions on gambling advertising are being proposed or brought into force as more European regulators attempt to address growing public concerns regarding its prevalence. But will they have the desired impact on addiction figures?
ProSieben enters German sports betting market

New restrictions on gambling advertising are being proposed or brought into force as more European regulators attempt to address growing public concerns regarding its prevalence. But will they have the desired impact on addiction figures?

During 2018, more European regulators moved to build a breakwater in a bid to stem a perceived tide of gambling advertising.

In the UK, operators attempted to seize the initiative and avoid regulatory action with a so-called ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban on advertising around live sport broadcasts. In Italy the country’s coalition government is embroiled in a battle with operators over a raft of restrictions on advertising and sponsorship deals.

The Spanish government is looking to impose the same restrictions on gambling advertising as it has on the promotion of tobacco products. Even Denmark, once hailed as the most transparent and effective regulatory regime, has launched a consultation that aims to significantly limit how and where its licensees can promote their products.

All moves are predicated on the same argument from authorities: gambling advertising is too prevalent, has resulted in more people developing problems, and has led to minors being exposed to age-restricted products.

Recent events suggest the industry has hardly covered itself in glory, particularly in the UK. The GB Gambling Commission has issued around £47m in fines and penalties to operators for a litany of social responsibility failings.

Many of these have seen self-excluded and at-risk players allowed to gamble, as well as using stolen funds to play. As outgoing Remote Gambling Association CEO Clive Hawkswood says, a gambling company can do 99 things right but will be pilloried for the one it gets wrong.

This does not explain why advertising in particular has come under the cosh, especially when problems appear to lie elsewhere within a gambling business. Some have suggested that it all stems from gambling being an emotive subject.

After all, Hawkswood also points out that most politicians will be moved to act by emotive stories of lives destroyed by problem gambling or addiction.

The natural reaction to some of the more hysterical accusations thrown at the industry by the tabloid press and activists is to provide an evidence-based rebuttal. Yet this approach hardly served the Association of British Bookmakers well in its battle against the Campaign for Fairer Gambling over FOBT stake limits.

As Hawkswood says, cold, hard figures will never have the same power as seeing or hearing of what gambling addiction has done to an individual’s life.

It only takes one person suffering from problems for lawmakers to act. Therefore when a study finds that gambling addiction rates have not increased in ten years, they do not see that the problem is being kept under control. They see evidence that more needs to be done to reduce the numbers.

For example, as Danish Online Gaming Association chief executive Morten Ronde points out in this issue, advertising restrictions proposed in that market are largely a result of a perceived increase in the number of problem gamblers.

While this does not denote actual gambling addicts – that requires a psychological evaluation – it does suggest a growing problem.

This, however, is often not the case. Due to regulation and more frequent market studies, surveys are casting a wider net and getting a better idea of how individuals in each regulated market gamble, how much they gamble, and ultimately how much is too much.

It could be argued that advertising is being targeted as it is the industry’s point of contact with the general public, presumably based on the rationale that the less visible an industry is, the less dangerous it can be.

These two opinions – and any resulting action – could, however, combine to make the situation much worse. If gambling is effectively pushed into the shadows, similar to tobacco, players may be unwilling to share information about their habits.

Legislating the igaming sector into a corner could also have a knock-on effect of channelling players towards unlicensed operators, at a time when increased acceptance and effective regulation appear to be offering greater insights into gambling behaviour than ever before.

Ultimately, as UK Advertising Association chief executive Stephen Woodford points out, restrictions only serve to address consequences, rather than causes, of wider problems.

“Blanket advertising bans have little impact on the wider societal issues that drive issues such as problem gambling, which are often caused by the interaction of many complex factors and require a multi-faceted solution targeted at local or even individual level,” he explains.

Woodford points out that far from adding to the problem, gambling advertising could actually be part of the solution. “It is important also to note advertising’s role in driving positive behaviour change to address gamblingrelated problems,” he says. “The upcoming campaign about the risks of problem gambling, funded by industry and run by GambleAware, is a good example of this in action.”

In part two of Promotional Nightmares, published tomorrow, iGamingBusiness.com will look at the unintended impact of advertising bans, potential alternatives to blanket prohibition and whether tackling advertising really gets to the root of the problem.