When the Fun Starts…

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When the Fun Starts…

“Some things in life are bad, they can really make you mad; others just make you want to swear and curse….

There are some pretty good reasons to take a glass half full view of betting and gaming in Great Britain these days – high profile licensing failures, multiple governmental and political reviews and the steady drip of adverse news stories. In the boardroom of Gambling Inc, there has been a run on hairshirts, humbled CEOs prostrate themselves and that insistent tap, tap, tapping you hear is the sound of a small army of do-gooders-for-hire signalling “virtue”.

The industry needed some tough love but with the dosage steadily increasing, we should make room for positivity. We consider the upside from looking at the bright side of gambling.

In Britain, the collection of activities and initiatives that sit loosely under the badge of ‘responsible gambling’ tend to be focused on stopping gamblers behaving ‘negatively’ – that is in ways that will seriously affect their well-being or cause harm to others. For example, the Senet Group’s strapline, ‘When the Fun Stops Stop’, prescribes abstention from gambling at the point when it starts to become an issue.

This is representative of a broader approach. We use negative language to describe harm minimisation initiatives; we use our communications to highlight risk; we frame customer choices in terms of mitigation; and we measure progress by looking exclusively at the deficit ledger.

So what if we viewed the subject through the other end of the telescope? What if, alongside highlighting the risks of excessive gambling, we also promoted positive behaviour? What if we made moderation and balance aspirational? What if we rewarded the ‘good’ rather than simply stopped encouraging the ‘bad’? In short, what if we adopted some of the lessons from behavioural economics and learned how to nudge as well as (or perhaps instead of) to shove?

This is precisely what has been going on in Canada for the last decade. The British Columbia Lottery Corporation has been one of the leading exponents worldwide of reframing harm prevention in positive terms – so much so that the Las Vegas giant, MGM Resorts has borrowed BCLC’s GameSense programme for its Massachusetts integrated resort casino.

At a time when the Government is carrying out a review of social responsibility measures and the Labour Party is looking into mental health issues related to gambling, we would do well to consider lessons from other jurisdictions, other sectors and from field of behavioural economics.

Let us start with how we frame choices. Operators have invested significant time and effort in developing an array of tools designed to help customers control the amount of time and money that they spend gambling. Depending on where and with whom you are gambling, it may be possible to set limits on deposits, expenditure and time; to restrict oneself to gambling on selected products, on certain days of the week and at specific times of the day; to take a breather from gambling via cool-offs; and to take extended (six-month minimum) breaks when it all gets too much. There is just one problem – very few gamblers actually use these measures.

It seems plausible that simply changing the way that we describe and market ‘responsible gambling’ tools will encourage greater usage. Rather than framing them as initiatives for preventing bad stuff, we might position them as positive and even normative. We might change the language we use so that a “deposit limit” becomes a “budget” or a “play plan” and “product exclusion” becomes “product personalisation”?

What if we then switched use of these tools from an opt-in to an opt-out basis so that all new customers (new registrations online, new members of venue rewards clubs or membership schemes) were encouraged to give active consideration to what they wanted to play and within what parameters?

What if we made the adoption of certain measures a pre-requisite for modes of gambling considered high-risk? Rather than abandoning VIP schemes (an area of sensitivity for the Gambling Commission), what if we made the use of certain play management tools a condition of exalted status?

Of course, the more intrusive the measure, the more we need to be wary of unintended negative consequences; but we shan’t know what will happen if we don’t try. Given that the Government and Gambling Commission both seem to be drifting towards greater mandated measures (which restrict consumer choice), now would seem to be a pretty good time to explore the benefits of a nudging consumers into making positive choices.

Indeed, the Commission has argued in the past for operators to do just this and its support for regulatory tightening (in its advice to DCMS) could be interpreted as a sign of exasperation that operators have not taken the hint.

Then there is the question of advertising. This year, the Government is likely to sanction a £5m to £7m per annum ‘responsible gambling’ advertising campaign (a typically perverse response to public concerns that there is simply too much gambling-related advertising on TV). Based upon recent form, it seems a reasonable bet that GambleAware (which has been appointed to oversee the work) is more likely to shove than to nudge.

There is a place for public health style advertising in relation to problem gambling – particularly where it concerns helping those who need help (problem gamblers and affected others) get the support they need; but from a preventative point of view, brand-led nudging just may be more effective than high profile virtue-signalling.

In last year’s study of responsible gambling conditions and behaviours, Hing et al indicated that different messages should be used with different audiences. The study of expert opinions suggested that for non-problem gamblers, we should focus on promoting an understanding of how gambling works (busting cognitive biases), promoting balance and focusing on “positive motivations to play”. Meanwhile, with problem gamblers, we should emphasise keeping gambling affordable, limiting persistence and sign-posting treatment and support.

This is consistent with the idea that broadcast communications, targeted at the general population of gamblers, should promote healthy gambling; with targeted engagement on problem or at-risk gamblers being more interventionist (and supportive).

What lessons might we learn from other sectors? Heineken’s ‘Dance More, Drink Slow’ campaign promoted moderate consumption as the best means of enjoying its product (which seems a bit more grown-up than the encouragement to gamble until “the fun stops”). It offered practical advice (such as interspersing beer with water) and provided positive inducements to take breaks (such as dancing and flirting). The campaign used big name DJs from the club scene (targeting the higher-risk young adult market) and made moderation appear aspirational.

Could this type of approach work in gambling? To help us answer this, let us consider the most enduring ‘man’s man’ (certainly in the western world) of the last half-century or so – Mr Bond…James Bond.

In her light-hearted review of the role of gambling in the first 24 Bond movies (from Dr No in 1962 to Spectre in 2015), Dr Pauliina Raento of Tampere University in Finland, draws attention to the idea that, for all his flaws, 007 is the model of the healthy gambler:

“Bond’s manner of play indicates technical superiority and professionalism, irrespective of the degree of chance involved in the game. He is consistently calm and relaxed, masters the rules, and handles tokens, cards, and dice in a clean, professional, and an understated manner. He adapts to changing situations and leaves the table without hesitation. He understands odds and probabilities, and is a good judge of character, which he applies when measuring up and challenging his opponents at the table”.

Raento’s observations ought to make us consider whether cool trumps virtue as a force for influence; and whether role models are more powerful than edicts.

Five years ago, I met with one of the marketing executives from Heineken to discuss his work on ‘Dance More, Drink Slow’ and other campaigns. The key insight he offered was that Heineken enjoyed greater influence with its consumers than public health organisations did; and this put the brand in a stronger position to influence behaviour within a general population of drinkers. This seems entirely plausible – and is something that both Sky Betting and Gaming and Tombola have started to explore in their recent adverts.

In Canada, Dr Richard Wood has led the way on an approach he calls “Positive Play”. Wood describes Positive Play as “responsible gambling with a player perspective (what we want players to do)”. It “focuses on the majority of players to learn more about their play” and “tries to encourage rather than warn”.  

As part of this approach, Wood (along with Drs Michael Wohl, Nassim Tabri and Kahlil Philander) have developed the ‘Positive Play Scale’ (‘PPS’) – a screen that seeks “to measure healthy gambling”. To date, no-one has tested the PPS in Great Britain but perhaps it is time that someone did.

If indeed there is value in encouraging positive play, might we also extend the principle to how gambling is offered and regulated? As we have observed in previous pieces, “the blanket criticism of the gambling industry” that characterises current public policy discourse “may be doing more harm than good”. Relations between the gambling industry and its regulator do not appear particularly healthy right now – and both sides have a responsibility to address this. Mutual recognition of positive behaviour (as well as constructive criticism of negative behaviour) is likely to be required if we are to rebuild trust between the regulator and the regulated.

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There has been a welter of alarming statements from the Gambling Commission in recent months – but perhaps the most troubling of all was its survey finding that only around one-in-three bettors cite the pursuit of fun and enjoyment as a motivation to gamble. This – alongside the steady erosion of trust in gambling by gamblers – hints at why operators have struggled to create any sense of consumer advocacy in their public policy battles. Amplifying the fun of gambling is clearly in the commercial interests of operators and – so long as it is focused on principles of moderation – it may also help to reduce harm. A focus on starting the fun (rather than stopping it) therefore has the potential to help reduce the friction between imperatives of profit and conscience.

Faced with the prospect of its own crucifixion, Britain’s gambling industry would do well to ponder the wisdom of Eric on the cross – “Forget about your sin; give the audience a grin.”