Responsible Gambling at the World Cup – This Time More Than Any Other Time…We’ll Get it Right?

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Responsible Gambling at the World Cup – This Time More Than Any Other Time…We’ll Get it Right?

Responsible Gambling at the World Cup – This Time More Than Any Other Time…We’ll Get it Right?

“Own goal – noun” 
“1. – (in soccer) a goal scored when a player inadvertently strikes or deflects the ball into their own team’s goal.
1.1British informal An act that unintentionally harms one’s own interests.”

When Russia takes to the field against Saudi Arabia this afternoon, it will mark the start of not simply the biggest sporting event on the planet – but also one of the biggest betting events. In Great Britain, the World Cup presents an opportunity for the remote betting sector to flex its muscles in order to attract new customers and so extend its hegemony over landbased gambling.

 

However, the welter of gambling advertising that is expected to accompany the tournament – coming at a time when the whole betting and gaming industry is in bad odour with press and politicians – meansthat this summer’s tournament may also carry greater risk than ever before.

The choice of Russia to host the tournament means that (extra-time aside) all 64 of the matches will be played out before 9pm. True, 50% of the games will be ad-free on the BBC and there will be no gambling references on team shirts, billboards or post-match interview hoardings – but a daily diet of pre-watershed sports betting ads on and around network TV (including social media) is likely to raise the hackles of industry critics (while the anticipated focus on new customer sign-ups will also test the extent to which operators have dealt with concerns about fairness and transparency).

Last month, when Culture Secretary Matt Hancock finally announced plans to reduce maximum stakes on machines in betting shops, he might have expected some respite from gambling controversy; yet on the very day that the FOBT decision was published, parliamentarians in both the Commons and the Lords signaled a shift in the focus of concern to online gambling and advertising.

This was in part because the Government had considered policy on advertising within the same review that brought the FOBT down – and decided to take only light action (in the form of a£5m to £7m a year ‘safer gambling’ campaign). It is commonly understood that DCMS’s restraint in this matter was dictated largely by the concerns of powerful media companies rather than gambling operators.

The roll-call of those who would see advertising restrictions imposed (and particularly the full enforcement of the 9pm watershed) includes the Church of England and the Labour Party but also a number of prominent gambling operators – notably (but not solely) William Hill from amongst the major advertisers.

The key issue here is not – at least directly – problem gambling; but the question of whether children are conditioned by exposure to gambling advertisements in a way that is unhealthy for their development.

Just last week, the Conservative MP, Anne Main wrote to the Hancock to ask what assessments he had made of “the effect on young peoples’ gambling behaviour of the advertising of gambling during live sporting events”and “the potential merits of establishing a 9pm watershed for all gambling advertising”.

It seems likely that Mrs Main had already made her own assessment for one day later, she tabled an Early Day Motion, expressing concern about the level of problem gambling in the UK. EDM 1351 notes that “gambling advertising is permitted during televised sporting events during the day when many children may be watching”and urges the Government “to introduce measures to end all televised gambling advertising before 9pm. The EDM has so far attracted support from 12 MPs from across the Conservatives, Labour, SNP, the DUP and Plaid Cymru.

This is not an isolated event – last month the SNP’s Alison Thewliss raised concerns in Parliament regarding the effect of gambling ads on children (as well as ads for in-play betting); and it seems likely that Labour’s Carolyn Harris may seek to annex the issue for her All Party Parliamentary Group once FOBTs have been put to bed.

We have reasonably good research (mainly from Professor Per Binde of Gothenburg University) that gambling advertising has only a limited direct effect on the incidence of problem gambling. The chief negative effect cited (and certainly not a slight one for those affected) seems to be that it makes abstinence more difficult for those trying to quit.

On the other hand, the evidence base in relation to harm to children is much weaker. GambleAware has commissioned research which is expected to be published this year; but until now Professor Samantha Thomas’s team at Deakin University in Australia has been most active in this particular field of study – and their findings support far greater controls over advertising. Incidentally, having won (at least in part) the battle in Australia, Professor Thomas will be in Great Britain (and presumably available for media interviews and MP meetings) for at least part of the World Cup this summer.

The Government’s and industry’s principal line of defence against advertising curbs is the development of a ‘safer gambling’ advertising campaign – and that in itself is a matter for concern. For one thing, evidence on the effectiveness of such campaigns is weak; critics are inclined to view them as fig leaves, particularly if they are perceived to place the onus of responsibility on gamblers rather than operators.

The Senet Group’s ‘When the Fun Stops Stop’campaign has achieved an impressive level of consistency from the industry – but is not universally admired. Critics include Simon Jenkins of the Guardian, a number of gambling concern groups and perhaps most significantly Neil McArthur, the CEO of the Gambling Commission.

The campaign is well-intended, superior to banal invocations to “gamble responsibly” and seems to have had some positive effects on self-reported behaviour. On the other hand, it has consistently irked gambling concern groups and – taken literally – appears to prescribe abstention at the point of harm which may not be the best advice after all. It is also likely that its light tone will jar with the vivid tales of gambling-related harm (including suicide, murder and violence) about which we expect to hear more this summer as policy focus shifts from problem gambling to harm. This particular campaign may – as some have suggested – have run its course.

The lobby for a more hard-hitting public-health approach (think tobacco health warnings) is becoming more vocal. Once again, there are valid questions regarding the effectiveness of scare tactics in achieving harm reduction – unremittingly dark depictions of gambling and problem gambling delivered via the mass media may result in unintended negative consequences. Such an approach may also be disproportionate to risk – but this is a delicate point to argue.

Indeed, it is questionable whether operators or trade groups should seek to compete with the public health lobby on virtue-signaling; a contest where there can only ever be one winner. Tellingly, the National responsible Gambling Strategy assigns education as a top three priority to the Gambling Commission, GambleAware and the Government rather than to industry.

In terms of mass media, operators may do better to focus on enhancing the acceptability of their commercial advertising and considering whether it promotes healthy behaviour (rather than sticking ‘responsible’ maxims at the end or at the bottom of ads that encourage consumption).

Operators have a proximity to gamblers (and a self-evident ability to influence them) which affords them a chance to nurture positive attitudes and behaviours in a way that public health organisations would find difficult. We may need an agreed framework of principles, but gambling operators should aspire to engage with their customers in the pursuit of harm prevention in ways that are consistent with their overall brand communications.

This proximity should also enable them to develop multi-layered and nuanced programmes. Mass communications, for example might be best used to promote positive play (balance and control); while more targeted messages aimed at those who may be experiencing harm (or know someone who is) should focus on providing reassurance (rather than reinforcing stigma) and simple and direct sign-posting to those best placed to help.

Based on what we have seen from other sectors and other jurisdictions, this approach (which some British operators adopt in part already) may be more effective in addressing harm than current efforts. It would also allow the industry to steer a course out of an unnecessary spat over ownership of ‘responsible gambling’ advertising.