Martin Lycka: Gamblng advertising – Here be monsters!

In the latest of a series of columns on international gambling legislation, GVC Holdings Director of Regulatory Affairs Martin Lycka dips into the rich history of Greek mythology to put the industry’s challenges this year into some sort of context.

A spectre is haunting gambling Europe – the spectre of a ban on gambling related advertising. It came from Italy and is now sweeping through the Mediterranean. The new Spanish coalition government has announced in its recent manifesto that it will consider tobacco-style restrictions on gambling advertising; its Greek counterpart is proposing prohibiting advertising of RNG based casino games.

Other European governments have stopped short of a complete ban, yet like for example the Swedes, the Belgians and lately also the Danes, are minded to put more or less severe restrictions on how gambling is allowed to be promoted. The governments in the throes of regulating their online gambling markets, such as the Netherlands, also tend to drift towards a more restrictive stance on gambling advertising.

The fluid spectre is thus solidifying into yet another colossus of an issue for the industry to negotiate and find a response to. Not giving an efficient response would, in my view, be a road to perdition. However where lies the most navigable route between the Charybdis of a gambling ban and the Scylla of an unattractive customer proposition stripped of a number of perks that have been on offer in the past? Are we facing a Sisyphean task or does our chance of salvation go through completing a Thirteenth Labour of Hercules? Let’s, at least theoretically, attempt the latter here by taking advantage of some of the labours Hercules has kindly completed for us already.

The dissection of the problem starts by cleansing the Augean stables of the rationale behind gambling advertising bans. I can almost hear the staccato voices of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Spain’s Pablo Iglesias uniting in chorus and belting out that gambling advertising needs banning to protect consumers from the evil of a 24/7 exposure to ubiquitous online gambling and the ever increasing levels of gambling addiction resulting therefrom.

Advertising is, in their view, one of the many heads of the gambling Hydra that require rather drastic trimming in a bid to secure a more responsible gambling environment.

This would not only be an environment free from gambling in TV breaks but also free from a myriad of digital and physical promotional banners and hoardings the industry has introduced over the years. No more bonuses, no nothing …

Brushing aside any speculation as to whether protectionism has a role to play when it comes to the motivation behind the draconian restrictions on gambling related advertising, I would be inclined to question the efficiency of a complete ban for several reasons:

1) just like bans of individual gambling product categories, an advertising ban has the propensity to cast a larger segment of gambling demand into the tenets of the unregulated, or if you will, black market;

2) the implication of the plunge into the abyss of a black market is an effective lowering of the overall responsible gambling standards in the market as a whole (arguably quite the opposite of what the likes of Messieurs Salvini and Iglesias allegedly intended in their fiery anti-gambling diatribes);

3) a blanket advertising ban makes it more difficult for the end users to distinguish between legitimate licensed operators and the fly by night ones; and finally

4) it materially contributes to stifling of competition on the market where the basic essence of the products on offer is largely identical and new product features replicable at a vertiginous speed (think cash out).

The Augean stables may not be that clean after all… However, instead of crying over the spilt regulatory milk I would suggest it was high time to grab the (Herculean Cretan) Bull by the horns and seek to complete the Thirteenth Labour. The tools at our disposal are, with a little help from our friends in governments, legislation and, in reliance on ourselves, self regulation; I would suggest the governing principle to abide by is that one size does NOT fit all.

What the above principle encapsulates is that crucially any advertising regulation needs to factor in the state of maturity of an individual gambling market. Newly regulated or regulating markets, such as for example the existing as well as prospective US markets, are best advised to adopt rather more lenient regulatory measures to start in a bid to ensure high levels of customer channelisation.

Once this is achieved a more restrictive approach designed to regulate the volume and frequency of advertising could be considered without however turning the screw too much and always with a close eye on the actual market and customer needs, in particular in terms of consumer protection, underpinned by reliable analysis, not second guessing.

As part of the advertising campaigns, today’s Herculeses (the stars and heroes of tennis courts, football pitches and ice hockey arenas) could be employed to convey responsible gambling messages in their capacities of role models. This is, I believe, the way to successfully fight the behemoth of blanket bans and excessively restrictive advertising rules without ending in the tentacles of Charybdis or the fangs of Scylla.

Martin Lycka is Director of Regulatory Affairs at GVC Group. Before that he spent nearly ten years at Paddy Power Betfair working on international markets. Views expressed are personal and not necessarily those of GVC Group.

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