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Over the influence

| By Marese O'Hagan | Reading Time: 4 minutes
IGB op-ed: On 1 October, the UK's Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) began enforcing new rules around gambling advertising in an effort to minimise influence on under-18s. But Marese O’Hagan argues that the industry has been too reliant on celebrity ambassadors to do the industry’s marketing.
AGA Nielsen

The decision from the Advertising Standards Authority to ban elements of advertising that have a “strong appeal” to minors – instead of the “particular appeal” in place previously – was met with intense reaction when it was made public in April.

In practice, the ban – which got considerably less fanfare as it came into force a week ago – mainly deals with celebrity appearances in gambling ads. Although much of the focus is on top-flight footballers, social media influencers and reality TV stars will also be included. The ASA specifically mentioned stars from Love Island, many of whom are influencers on social media.

As a whole, operators have long relied on high-profile individuals to bring attention to their products. While some figures do not have a clear appeal to under-18s – such as Bet365 ambassador Ray Winstone – many UK operators heavily rely on sporting stars in marketing material, meaning that the new rules could take marketing teams back to the drawing board.

Now that the new restrictions are in place in the UK, operators have to rethink their endorsement deals. But should they be rethinking much more than that?

The celebrity issue

Previously, featuring high-profile footballers and celebrities in gambling ads was a surefire way to capture attention. But in the years leading up to the new restrictions, operators and their celebrity partners could hardly escape criticism from those who oppose the industry.

Part of the issue lies in the fact that it’s always going to be tough to decide which ads are too appealing to children, regardless of the standard used. In 2019, a BetVictor ad featuring football manager Harry Redknapp caused a stir, partly because Redknapp’s stint – and victory – in ITV’s I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out Of Here the previous year made him arguably more recognisable to those under the age of 18.

But while the CAP’s move to protect under-18s is generally welcomed, the gambling industry has long made use of celebrity ambassadors regardless of their appeal. At a certain point you have to ask: does the industry rely too much on these ambassadors?

Operators in the UK regularly make use of sports stars, in particular current and former football players, to generate attention in their marketing. All of these partnerships inevitably get criticised for taking advantage of sports fans and are they really worth it from an acquisition perspective?

Overreliance on celebrities seems even worse in the US, where every operator seems determined to snap up every possible star of Hollywood films and the “Big Four” sports leagues.

It goes beyond that though. Weeks ago BetMGM named former Disney Channel star Vanessa Hudgens as the operator’s newest brand ambassador. While Hudgens’ days of influencing a Disney Channel-aged audience are long gone, she has starred in four Netflix Christmas movies in the last four years – three of which are rated PG, one of which is rated 12. A similar reckoning may come in the US and operators would be wise to decrease their reliance on celebrities ahead of that.

Don’t just think of the children

Even advertisements that feature ambassadors not specifically of influence to children are being criticised as being exploitative in different ways. In 2019, football manager Jose Mourinho featured in an advertisement for Flutter-owned Paddy Power, which promoted the operator’s new Daily Jackpots feature. The ad itself promoted 100 free spins for new customers. Several months later The Times reported that Mourinho had faced calls to step away from the partnership, after criticism that the ad was unethical.

Clearly, advertising that features celebrities is facing an armageddon of sorts. But in today’s ever-changing world, is it even worth it to bring in the most popular public figures of the time in for ads?

Yes, there will be people who criticise every possible action taken by gambling businesses. But celebrities are much more likely to give into pressure from those groups, and make campaigns look like failures that draw attention to the worst of the industry.

And then there is an element of unreliability. Today, a celebrity could be the most respected person in any industry. Tomorrow, they could be the center of a scandal that would make any advertising bearing their image age very badly – and quickly.

But even without those concerns, the reliance on celebrity ambassadors is just lazy marketing. Can operators not find a better strategy than bringing in a retired footballer to tell you about their products?

With more change on the horizon for the GB gambling industry, this crackdown could be a preview of things to come. So operators must look towards more creative ways to market their products.

Industry criticism

But any change will not come without pushback. Those within the UK industry have taken issue with the “strong appeal” wording of the newest restrictions, arguing that it is not specific enough.

In the consultation that preceded the announcement, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) said that only thinking of whether content appealed to under-18s, rather than whether its appeal to children was disproportionate, did not make sense.

“Restricting the consideration of appeal to solely an under-18 audience, with no reference to the same content’s appeal to an adult audience (as proposed in the strong appeal test), is a step too far,” said the BGC.

“While we understand CAP and UK Code of Broadcast Advertising’s aims, we don’t believe that the effect of this restriction is proportionate.”

Yet when the rules were officially announced, the BGC was much more supportive. There might be a lesson in that. Changing marketing habits can appear almost impossible, but when push comes to shove, it can lead to much more interesting campaigns.

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