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UKGC: A storm is coming if operators don't curb gambling ads

UK Gambling Commission programme director Ian Angus says operators must change their practices now or face the consequences

The below is an excerpt from the speech made by UK Gambling Commission programme director Ian Angus at this morning’s  Know Now ‘Responsible Marketing for Gambling Operators’ 

Ian Angus

Ian Angus

We need a proper and constructive debate about gambling marketing and advertising, including sponsorship arrangements in sport. At a time when consumer trust in gambling is at an all time low, it would be unwise for industry to ignore the hardening public and political mood around advertising. For some, it’s a moral reaction; for others it’s an irritant (stop bombarding me with gambling ads!); but for many, including a growing number of researchers and academics, it reflects a genuine concern about the unknown impacts of children’s exposure to gambling advertising and sport sponsorship.

It’s difficult to see how the “as is” scenario is sustainable. Parliamentary questions on advertising are tabled almost weekly, media headlines scream about irresponsible marketing practices, and prominent politicians, from across the political divide, are calling for drastic measures to reduce children’s exposure.

In our quarterly online survey tracker, we collect data on a range of topics, including advertising, social media and sponsorship. The findings speak for themselves:
• 90% have ever seen a gambling advert or sponsorship
• 77% believe that gambling adverts are dangerous for children and young people
• 64% believe that gambling adverts should be discouraged
• Nearly 50% believe that gambling adverts often contain misleading information.

Qualitative comment drawn from the survey is overwhelmingly negative and commonly refers to the sheer volume of gambling advertising, particularly on TV. Typical comments include:
• “There shouldn’t be so many ads…especially during the daytime”
• “I wouldn’t criticise the content but just the sheer volume of betting advertising”
• “I think there is too much of it about on TV and I am fed up of seeing it”
• “There are far too many adverts for gambling, many of which promise unrealistic chances of winning”

The growth in gambling advertising is a predictable (and permissible) consequence of the Gambling Act 2005. Since the market was liberalised there has been an explosion in the number of gambling ad TV “spots” – a level of growth perhaps not imagined at the time. Ad spend climbs and climbs, and people are being exposed to more ads and sponsor promotions – across a range of media – than ever before.

Strict rules are in place to ensure that gambling ads aren’t targeted at, or of particular appeal to, u18s, but they don’t serve to restrict ad volume or concentration, nor are they intended to block exposure to children and young people.

The World Cup and the kick-off of the new football season have brought some of these issues in to sharp focus. Ads for gambling dominated domestic World Cup ad break viewing and with nearly 30 million tuning into to watch England’s semi-final clash with Croatia, their reach was significant (including, to a very sizeable audience of u18s). Sponsorship arrangements for the 2018/19 football season have also generated concern. Nine of this year’s 20 Premier League clubs are advertising gambling brands across their players’ chests with 17 out of 24 Championship clubs doing likewise.

When you then consider the concentration of gambling ads around live football on TV, in-play betting ads and commentary on the radio (it can sometimes feel that you’re listening to a gambling show with a bit of punditry thrown in), the growth and promotion of ‘official betting partners’, and the endless cycle of digital pitch side ads, it’s little wonder that people feel besieged. It raises inevitable questions about gambling’s association with sport; in particular, the impact on impressionable young sport fans. No laws or rules are necessarily being broken in
this regard, but a mature, responsible gambling sector needs to ask itself the question: “is this right”?

Compliance lessons

I’d like to reflect now on compliance with the advertising content and placement rules which, to be frank, hasn’t been good enough. I think industry recognises that and it should be noted that standards have improved.

The advertising of free bets and bonuses is a good example. Well established advertising rules, drawn down from consumer law, make clear that marketing promotions must not mislead. Industry was warned, time and time again, about misleading marketing practices but failed to act. It should never have taken a series of ASA rulings, a million pounds worth of financial penalties from the Commission and a major investigation, followed by enforcement action, by the Competition & Markets Authority, to secure sector-wide compliance. It’s done incalculable damage to the industry’s reputation and it could, and should, have been avoided.

In 2017 industry was also forced in to taking urgent measures to shore up its affiliate programmes. A joint piece of work between the Commission and the ASA culminated in a series of high-profile ASA rulings which banned some of the most appalling ‘adverts’ I have ever seen. Framed in ‘advertorial’ style, they all reported on apparent gambling successes and included text such as:
“…William is also over £130,000 in debt after having to sell the house and continue to pay out of pocket for his wife’s cancer related medical bills their insurance WOULDN’T cover…

William took to Facebook one night in the hospital lobby to update his friends and family on his wife’s health”.

Each went on to explain how “a little tired and admittedly a bit depressed”, William “stumbled upon” promotions, which offered an escape from his financial and family health worries. Banners at the bottom of each advertorial advertised a promotion run by one of the gambling operators.

Quite rightly, industry took immediate steps to scale back, and in some cases, disband affiliate programmes – but the damage was done. Proper due diligence, robust contractual T&Cs and effective monitoring would have avoided this.

Industry has also stumbled, needlessly, into controversies about ad placement and ads of particular appeal to u18s.

“Cartoons lure kids to online gambling” was the headline in the Sunday Times on 8 October 2017, resulting in the Commission, CAP, the ASA and the RGA writing to 450 online operators demanding the immediate withdrawal of such ads from their websites and other freely accessible places. Irrespective of intent, the advertising rules had been broken again and the integrity of the industry was being called into question. Yes, there is plenty of subjectivity in this space, but many of the ads identified were slam dunk breaches. It shouldn’t have happened.

More recently, ‘5 Live investigates’ aired a programme titled, ‘Children Targeted by Gambling Ads’. Programme researchers discovered 15 clubs in the Premier League, the Championship, League One and the Scottish Professional Football League were in breach of the advertising rules by promoting gambling ads, or sponsor logos and links, on the junior pages of their club websites. It immediately drew fire from senior politicians and the Children’s Commissioner. Operators and clubs moved swiftly to fix the issue, but it was another example of an avoidable, careless oversight.

Industry has also fallen under the watchful eye of the Information Commissioner’s Office due to potential breaches of the Privacy & Electronic Communication Regulations (commonly referred to as PECR). PECR sits alongside the Data Protection Act and GDPR and gives people specific privacy rights in relation to electronic communications. You will often need a person’s consent before you can send them an electronic marketing message.

If you do need consent, then – to be valid – consent must be knowingly and freely given, clear and specific. It’s deeply concerning that despite advice and warnings being issued by the Commission and the ICO for the best part of two years, the ICO’s most recent monthly threat assessment shows gambling as the most complained about sector for ‘spamming’ consumers by SMS. This isn’t acceptable and with LCCP changes on the horizon industry needs to get its act together.

What’s happening?

I’d like to move on now to talk about activities and initiatives which aim to raise standards in gambling marketing and advertising – and there is a lot happening.
Earlier this year we consulted on new Licence conditions and code of practice provisions relevant to advertising, and unfair terms and practices. The consultation was, in large part, triggered by the compliance failings referenced a moment ago. New provisions, which come into effect from 31 October, will enable us to take tougher and swifter action, including fining, if operators are found to have breached the UK Advertising Codes, rules on marketing consent, or consumer law.

We’re also continuing to develop our understanding of public exposure to gambling advertising and attitudes towards it. Public opinion is important and should play a role in informing the thinking of industry and policy-makers alike. It’s particularly important at a time when we are all striving to raise standards and make gambling fairer and safer.
The Committees of Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standards Authority are also doing a lot of work to improve and update their gambling guidance for advertisers. In February, CAP published new guidance which introduced tougher standards on gambling advertising, focusing on appeal to problem gamblers and on free bets and bonuses. Both sets of standards form part of continued efforts to make sure regulation prevents harm and promotes responsible advertising.

Importantly, CAP is also planning to publish new guidance later year this focused on protecting children and young people.

In our formal advice to DCMS on its Review of Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures we noted that the tone, content and quantity of gambling advertising had attracted public concern. We shared – and still do share – concerns that gambling marketing and advertising, including sponsorship, could lead to gambling-related harm for children and other vulnerable people. The available evidence isn’t clear though and we committed to working with the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board and GambleAware to build on it. We concluded that this continues to be an area that requires close scrutiny and that it’s appropriate to keep under review the option of applying the precautionary principle.

We were therefore very pleased that GambleAware commissioned a substantial piece of research from the Commission’s research programme exploring the effects of marketing and advertising on children, young people and vulnerable adults. The work will examine where and how often gambling marketing and advertising occurs and the extent to which children, young people and other vulnerable groups are exposed. It will also examine the tone and content of adverts and the extent to which these groups are susceptible to different techniques, as well as the extent to which these groups are targeted with online advertising. The project is progressing well and is due to complete in Spring 2019.

GambleAware aware continues to work on the development of an industry funded – but independently delivered – safer gambling campaign, across all media, with support from Public Health England. The campaign will target engaged sports gamblers and is expected to launch later this year.

The Industry Group for Responsible Gambling has published an updated edition of the ‘Gambling Industry Code for Socially Responsible Advertising’ which includes a new requirement for responsible gambling messages, or a reference to begambleaware.org, to be included for the full length of gambling adverts shown on television. Senet Group has also released its responsible gambling marketing materials for use by the wider industry and individual operators are coming forward with initiatives to raise standards in advertising through a more socially responsible and balanced approach.

Conclusion

So, what do we take from all of this and where do we go next?

The public mood is hardening, and the spotlight is very firmly on advertising. People feel besieged and worry about the impact it may be having on younger generations. Standards haven’t been good enough and industry has paid the price – financially and reputationally. There’s a lot of good work happening but it’s unlikely to address fundamental concerns about the volume of advertising and the rapidly growing exposure of brand sponsorship deals linked to sport.

Advertising is the lens through which consumers and the wider public judge you, your brand and the wider industry. It’s the first thing they see or hear; and first impressions matter. The decline in public trust and confidence reflects badly on us all – and it needs to be reversed.

My advice to you is this…

A storm is gathering, but it can be avoided. Learn from the mistakes of the past – listen to what the public is saying and put responsible advertising standards at the very heart of your business. Don’t wait for the storm clouds to burst and precautionary measures to be triggered.
Step up now and own this.

Thank you.

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