In recent years, UK lawmakers have undergone a wave of guilty conscience around the gambling industry.
For decades before the advent of smartphones, the promotion of gambling was rife across sporting events both major and minor, cinemas, street billboards, newspapers and everywhere inbetween.
Then, as technology began to come on leaps and bounds and smartphone betting and casino gaming became universally available, the owners of such games and sportsbooks went to town on promoting their products for punters to engage with.
This in hindsight might’ve been seen as reckless but at the time, issues around problem gambling; the physical and mental health consequences brought on by financial problems at the hands of gambling gamification, were under-covered and to a large extent, hidden away.
Not so anymore following the publication of the government’s Gambling White Paper in April of this year. In fact, advertising and the promotion of gambling products and services has been one of the major focuses as a correction point. Calls for urgent reform of advertising practices have been loud and clear from all sections of the public including pressure groups, the sporting world, medical professionals and even fellow-lawmakers.
Let’s refresh what measures have been brought in by the government’s White Paper and what specific issues they are looking to address.
The state of play
It’s important to appreciate the level of saturation with which advertisements, essentially encouragements to gamble, have saturated the UK today and many adverts for available bonuses at casinos are still seen across various different forms of media.
According to Gambling Commission official numbers:
- 85% of adults reported ever seeing gambling advertising or sponsorships;
- 60% report seeing them at least once a week;
- 66% of respondents to the 2022 Young People and Gambling Survey aged 11 to 16 reported that their exposure to adverts or promotion about gambling happens offline, with 63% stating they had seen advertising online or on a mobile app.
Furthermore, Regulus Partners data cited in the White Paper show that TV gambling advertising spend grew from £80 million in 2014 to £145 million in 2017, while social media advertising swelled from £40 million in 2014 to £140 million in the same period.
It’s the variation in stimulus that makes these advertisements so effective that they are absorbed both consciously and subconsciously on a minute-by-minute basis.
It is nigh-on impossible to not encounter a casino game advertisement if you spend any amount of time at a computer browsing the internet for work or leisure. Highly-coloured and with a gamefied appearance, there’s something almost uniquely sinister about how appealing and enticing these games can look to people of all ages, political beliefs, income levels etc.
And, unfortunately, their calling cards are the ease with which you can deposit and be playing to win (or more likely lose) money within a minute of seeing the advert.
It is why responses from medical professionals to the White Paper were so universally strong in emphasising that more needs to be done to dull down how easy it can be for vulnerable people to be swayed into ostensibly playing a game that could have very real and damaging effects n the long run.
White Paper outlines
So what did the White Paper outline would be done on gambling advertising?
The document outlines that it will “tackle aggressive advertising practices like using bonuses in ways which exacerbate harms,”
This will be done in a two-pronged departmental approach, with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) overseeing an Online Advertising programme watchdog from the Gambling Commission to strengthen existing messaging on gambling dangers and explore new ways of surfacing them.
The no-brainer answer would be to heavily dilute if not curb entirely the incentive bonus structure for new and existing players; something that would likely make huge dents in the pockets of the casino game owners and operators.
Or, go nuclear and borrow the example from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) which a few years ago announced the prohibition of “broad public” advertising of bonuses and other gambling inducements. Companies in the region can still use these tactics legally, but only on their own site or through direct advertising issued after receiving player consent.
The final consultation phases of the Bill should be wrapping up before the end of the year so more clarity on where the bonus advertising protocols have landed should be gleaned by then.
Football and other sports
The other major advertising theme of the white paper was its prevalence among sports in the UK, particularly the nation’s favourite pastime, football.
Rarely a day goes by during the Premier League football season without seeing Ray Winstone’s delightful mug plastered across a tv or phone screen offering you the best odds on one or all of today’s games.
Add to that the gambling companies are *literally* woven into the identity of several major clubs in the league through shirt sponsorships. Well, the White Paper has put paid to that; no club will be able to have a front-of-shirt sponsorship from a gambling company from the end of next season. Undoubtedly, there will be clever ways to circumvent brand presence on shirts from disappearing completely; shirtsleeves etc. Not to mention that there are no current or planned restrictions outlined by the legislation on billboards lining the ground and therefore on tv for the duration of the game, from displaying them.
As with any consumable service or product where over-use can have harmful effects, the government’s regulation of gambling will need to be incredibly nuanced so as to satisfy the companies in the market that their industry is not being torpedoed whilst also preventing the further rise of gambling harms.
Much of the conservative party policy on the exact framework will remain muddied until the consultations have been fully processed.
But then there’s the thorny issue of a general election within the next two years and the strong possibility of a new Labour government under Keir Starmer. Interestingly, the White Paper released in April was an update to the initial Gambling Act passed in 2005 under Tony Blair’s Labour government.
How Starmer and/or Sunak, should he stay at the head of government, will accelerate the transition to a safer gambling environment remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain.
While the White Paper made a start on tackling the issues around how punters use the industry, there is a very long way to go to alleviate the concerns of those most familiar with the effects of gambling harms.