It’s a Shame About Ray – Gambling Ad Bans: the Triumph of Pragmatism…and Intolerance

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It’s a Shame About Ray – Gambling Ad Bans: the Triumph of Pragmatism…and Intolerance

It’s a Shame About Ray – Gambling Ad Bans: the Triumph of Pragmatism…and Intolerance

 

The Industry Group for Responsible Gambling’s (IGRG) announcement of a ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban on gambling adverts during sports broadcasts in Great Britain may have limited effects on the short-term health of the industry or on harm. Following government interventions in Australia and a growing number of European jurisdictions, it is however symbolic of the growing pressure to reframe gambling from legitimate social pastime to an activity to be tolerated but not stimulated. In this article, we look at what the effects of the ban are likely to be, why it was considered necessary and what is likely to happen next. 

 

So it’s goodbye Ray, farewell Jeff and adios to the chap who plays the pervy kid in the In-Betweeners – from June next year, sports betting ads on TV will have been largely consigned to history. The ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban will bring an end to betting adverts in and around sports broadcasts that start before 9pm (with a sensible exemption for quadruped sports; recognition that the ‘Sport of Kings’ is after all primarily a betting event).

 

Gambling concern groups have been quick to claim victory – and just as quick to move on to other matters such as sponsorship and online advertising (rather perversely seeming to diminish the importance of the issue on which they had previously campaigned and giving the impression that no amount of compromise or preventative action will ever be enough). In Westminster and Whitehall, the Government has welcomed news of a self-imposed ban despite concluding earlier this year that such action was not actually necessary or desirable.

 

So what is really going on and what might we expect to happen as a result of the new curbs in the British market?

 

The need to reduce harms has been part of the case for advertising restrictions; but as is often the way the arguments have been both overblown (by concern groups) and understated (by operators). The global research literature on the effects of advertising (which is reasonably extensive if not all that robust) indicates that there maybe a number of harms related to gambling adverts. The point where research opinion appears most consistent is that gambling commercials are likely to have a negative effect on those trying to quit, by helping to undermine resolve and trigger relapse.

 

Of course, not all adverts are created equal and as some researchers acknowledge we ought to be interested in the specific aspects of advertising that might cause concern. The work of Dr Nerilee Hing of Central Queensland University for example draws attention to the potentially negative interplay of advertising with in-play betting – in particular her finding that “wagering inducements independently predicted impulse betting during sporting matches”.

 

However, all things considered, the balance of research opinion appears to be that advertising is a lower order issue where harm is concerned. As Professor Per Binde of the University of Gothenburg put the matter in 2014; “The impact of advertising on the prevalence of problem gambling is in general likely to be neither negligible nor considerable, but rather relatively small”. The industry must look to itself when considering how politicians, the press and concern groups have been able to depict advertising as a significant public health issue in contradiction to the bulk of the evidence.

 

We must though think of the children. There are valid concerns with regard to the effects on children of heavy exposure to inducements for what is (for a variety of very good reasons) an age-restricted activity. Yet while we ought to be vigilant where the well-being of minors is concerned, the evidence of harm to children is pretty slight. The published studies have tended to focus on self-report data – probing recall rates of gambling brands and attitudes towards them rather than behavioural responses (difficult to achieve given the need for ethical approvals and the inherent challenges of such research).

 

In recent years, Professor Samantha Thomas and her research team at Deakin University in Australia have led the way on assessing the impacts of advertising on children. Their studies indicate high rates of recall and the suggestion that some young people find the adverts instructive – in other words, the ads are teaching them how to place bets online.

 

It is true that the Deakin team is somewhat agenda-driven; but this does not by itself devalue the research (in much the same way that industry participation in research need not necessarily distort findings – so long as the commissioning agent does not expect or seek to influence certain outcomes). Nevertheless, a review of the studies undertaken to date indicates that while we ought to be concerned, a strong case has not yet been made for intervention.

 

So if the evidence base is weak and inconclusive, why all the hoopla? It is at this point that the ‘precautionary principle’ is usually wheeled out. The principle states that if we don’t really know what effect a policy will have but we have reasons to be concerned then we ought to proceed with care and err on the side of caution.

 

The problem with invoking the precautionary principle on this matter is that we are a good decade too late. It was in 2007 that the laws changed to permit gambling ads on TV in Great Britain. If there was a time to exercise caution, it was then. The horse has not so much bolted as ambled off into the sunset while the stable door fell off its hinges. Sure, there have been other things going on (the financial crisis and various referenda have consumed huge amounts of political energy) but some concerned parties have been very late to the party.

 

We suspect that one of the reasons that advertising has become such a big issue is that society still carries with it a certain moral disapproval of gambling (even amongst those who gamble). It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the three aspects of regulation that have excited the greatest controversy in the last decade or so have been those which raised the visibility of the industry or threatened to do so: advertising; FOBTs (and their contribution to betting shop ‘clustering’); and the abandoned plans for the super-casino (a totem for the permissiveness of Tony Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’). Indeed, the retreat of parliamentary ‘working class Labour’ (videBrexit) in favour of the Islington set (and the SNP) arguably increased this trend even during gambling’s perceived ‘normalisation’ phase.

 

Betting ads are unusual by token of the fact that they are designed to promote immediate, transactional responses (unlike buying cars, insurance or even shampoo) and because they appropriate the content of the main viewing event (right down to providing live in-play odds). This contrasts with how most other product categories use TV advertising – to promote awareness and consideration. It is the immediacy, directness and transactional nature of betting ads that jars when positioned alongside far more sophisticated approaches to general consumer marketing.

 

Then there is the question of taste – and in particular the ‘lads mag’ quality of some of the campaigns. There is nothing wrong per sewith using some old copies of ‘Loaded’ magazine as one’s advertising playbook; but how the remote industry promotes itself has a significant influence on how society (particularly the non-gambling elements) views it. In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift by some operators towards a more grown-up style – but the perpetuation of ‘banter-led’ advertising still colours perceptions of the industry at large (missing the #metoo movement added to the impact of the own goal). An advertising approach so obviously aimed at young men was also likely to excite concerns when prevalence surveys show that twenty-something males are at elevated risk of developing gambling problems.

 

Finally, there is an understandable sense of unease about the proximity of gambling to football and other sports (and this may be more about sponsorship than ads themselves). A few years back, Sky Bet used the slogan, “It matters more when there’s money on it”;a stunningly simple articulation of an important truth – that betting can indeed spice up sports viewing for many fans. The problem is that many perhaps wish it were not so; seeing it as a corruption of more Corinthian ideals where sport ought not to require enhancement from wagering. Given early signs that some US stakeholders appear to be following a similar path, there may be important lessons to be learned from experiences in Australia, Italy and Great Britain.

 

Britain’s remote operators deserve credit for tackling an issue that was getting out of hand in the press and in Parliament. Learning how and when to bend with the wind is an important attribute for this industry; and the decision to adopt a sports betting advertising ban voluntarily is probably the ‘right thing’ to do. Yet there is something unsettling about the suggestion that it is somehow a response to the will of the people. For one thing, there is some doubt about the depth of concerns within the public at large – certainly the Gambling Commission’s research on public attitudes does not indicate that the population is losing much sleep over the matter. The ads may be annoying but we don’t ban things simply because they irritate us. Just ask Justin Bieber.

 

At the same time, the industry has no divine right to advertise. If we take the 1960 Betting & Gaming Act as the starting point for a genuinely mainstream regulated gambling market in Britain, then the existence of betting ads on TV is very much the exception rather than the rule. Operators would do well to remember that advertising (as with most aspects of Point of Consumption gambling) is a privilege rather than a right.

 

More broadly, the invocation of public disquiet to justify significant regulatory or self-regulatory change may set a dangerous precedent for the futures of both gambling and civil liberty. In the first instance, It may be seen to give licence to the anti-gambling lobby to pursue progressively tighter restrictions in the name of unproven “public demand”.Even where the will of the people can be clearly shown, intervention is not necessarily justified. As Professor Peter Collins wrote in 2003: “The fact that the majority of people want government to do something does not necessarily mean that government should do it”.

 

It seems a shame that operators have felt compelled to yield without anyone undertaking any real analysis of what it is about gambling adverts that causes concern and irritation. Perhaps we were always going to have to eject the baby with the bathwater on this one (which had ‘got out of hand’ on almost every measure but underlying harm) – but we should learn from our mis-steps. Too often the industry at large gets suckered into arguments with binary outcomes (to permit or prohibit); when it is clear that grown-up nuanced debates are likely to result in the best outcomes for consumers. For this, some space for debate and understanding is needed. It is possible that the ad ban will create this space – but this requires initiative and coordination.

 

The consumer benefits case for advertising exists but has so far not been made in any persuasive fashion. As one Westminster insider confided to us last year: “All the arguments for maintaining the status quo have been around negatives – black market leakage, lost tax revenues, lost opportunities to promote safer gambling. The positive consumer arguments have been non-existent.” As we have seen repeatedly in recent years, negative arguments may have some influence on finance ministries but are unlikely to cut much ice with politicians more generally.

 

So what happens next?

 

The whistle-to-whistle ban will undoubtedly take some of the heat off the industry but it won’t stop the campaigning. The same arguments that were used against advertising will now be replayed on sponsorship (where the case for the defence is arguably more brittle than on ads). Marketing activity will be redeployed in other battlefields where intensification of spending will likely trigger new concerns. For example, an increase in advertising in general programming after 9pm may cause annoyance and lead to greater concerns around vulnerability (studies have shown elevated risk of problem gambling linked to late-night play).

 

Those operators who have offered up the ban in Britain may find that they are expected to do likewise in other markets if the governments don’t get there first (as in Australia, Italy, Belgium and probably Spain). The US is obviously moving in a different direction at present (at least in terms of noise), following the repeal of PASPA but failure to learn from reverses in Europe and Australia will almost certainly sow the seeds of destruction for the present (hoped for) liberalism. There is a long history of suspicion of sports betting in the US (in contrast to Britain) and the natural conservatism of much of American politics makes backlash a real possibility.

 

Of course, some operators privately resented the Prisoners Dilemma of having to spend money on TV ads just to keep up with competitors (especially those with brands stronger than their product). In the near-term, the ban may prove a boon for profitability; but it is also a signal that political and societal attitudes towards gambling are retreating towards a pre-Budd view that gambling ought to be tolerated but not encouraged. Given the highly liberal and permissive nature of Britain’s current online framework, the risks to operators do not stop at advertising (and may include sponsorship, credit cards, speed of play, stakes and prizes etc).

 

Operators are getting used to taking the blame and being told what to do. However, the IGRG’s announcement should also trigger two responses from the regulatory establishment, in our view. First, the need for a costly counter-advertising campaign dreamt up by the DCMS, Public Health England and GambleAware should be reassessed. It would be counter-productive for funds to be diverted away from more worthy causes simply to honour a ministerial commitment that always looked questionable and now looks thoroughly redundant. Second, the effects of the ban need to be evaluated (using robust ante-post analysis of attitudes and behaviours) so that we can start to understand its benefits and costs. Failure to take these actions (with necessary industry engagement) may lead to the conclusion that public health posturing has been driven more by questions of taste, perception and a fear of the anti-gambling lobby than by scientific appraisal and genuine concern for practical harm minimisation.