Winning Post: UK gambling forced to grow-up on advertising standards

Regulus Partners digs deep as to why the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) decided to introduce tough new measures to control the appeal and engagement of gambling advertising with young audiences. To the surprise of observers, the UK’s advertising monitor has moved ahead of regulatory judgements on industry marketing standards that were due to be settled by the government’s review of the 2005 Gambling Act

Advertising was in the spotlight again this week as the Advertising Standards Authority announced “tough new rules” to curb gambling adverts and their potential to appeal to under-18s. The principle underpinning the new regulations is that adverts must not “be likely to be of strong appeal to children or young persons, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture”.

This replaces the former proscription against adverts that might have “particular appeal” to minors and flags offside Premiership footballers, TV presenters, film stars and celebrities with strong social media following by minors.

It is not clear why the ASA feels the need to describe the new rules as “tough” when the regulator should be aiming for effectiveness (‘toughness’ is not necessarily a good thing) and there are concerns of muddle where implementation is concerned. For example, a commercial arrangement may be red-carded if a footballer transfers into the top-flight – or rescinded if his or her team is relegated.

The ban also applies to “prominent sportspeople involved in sports like cricket, tennis and rugby that, at the highest levels, have a significant national profile” – but it is unclear how similarity is to be judged. Squash, badminton and racketball for example may all be said to be “like” tennis (and therefore may be considered potentially ‘high risk’). At the same time, there are similarities between cricket and golf (both sports involve efforts to hit relatively small objects with precision and for long and short distances) – but golf is specifically excluded from the ban on the grounds that it is “clearly adult-orientated”.

The muddle may, however, be inevitable and operators and broadcasters might simply need to accept the need to muddle through until a working translation of the new rules emerges. In the meantime, the ASA, CAP and BCAP may find that they have their hands full dealing with complaints on the subjective new grounds that they have laid out.

While there has been a certain amount of grumbling about the new rules, it is possible that they will help the industry in an area where it has consistently proved unable to help itself. Over the course of the last decade-and-a-half, marketing departments have inflicted huge reputational damage on their industry through campaigns that have often (though certainly not uniformly) been characterised by crass, insensitive and – at times – irresponsible messages. Some operators have raised standards in recent years but it has generally been left to the ASA to codify those higher standards and ensure widespread adoption.

This has represented, in our view, a failure of industry coordination. By forcing gambling brands to grow up and behave more responsibly, the ASA may be giving the industry a fighting chance of preserving its ability to advertise its services.

Perhaps the most unsatisfactory aspect of the exercise is its ostensible justification. The new rules were prompted directly by a 2020 report from Ipsos MORI (commissioned by GambleAware) which pulled together findings from across a number of research strands. Arguably the most important finding was that a large proportion of the non-gambling 11-24-year-olds in a ScotCen survey (McGregor et al., 2019) were described as “susceptible to gambling”.

Although the researchers were unable to attribute susceptibility to advertising exposure, this finding appeared to be particularly troubling to the ASA in its consultation document. The finding was not however all that it seemed. When asked “do you think you will spend money on gambling in the next year?”, survey participants were given four response options: ‘definitely no’; ‘probably no’; ‘probably yes’; and ‘definitely yes’.

Only those answering ‘definitely no’ were classified as not susceptible. The detailed survey results (not published by Ipsos MORI at the time) make for interesting reading. Of the non-gambling survey respondents classified as ‘susceptible to gambling’, 83% answered that they probably would not gamble in the next year, 6.2% said that they probably would gamble and just 0.4% (two survey respondents out of 567) said that they would ‘definitely’ gamble.

What we are unable to determine is how many of those who considered themselves likely to gamble in the future were adults (in which case, responses may simply have reflected a decision to keep options open in consideration of a legal pastime) or what they thought they might gamble on (a future intention to gamble is not in itself a cause for concern – unless one cleaves to prohibition). Details matter where interpretation of survey results is concerned.

Elsewhere, a report funded by the advocacy group, Clean Up Gambling rather surprisingly stated that “It is impossible to attribute changes in overall gambling participation and problem gambling to one specific factor, football sponsorship…”. This is undoubtedly true but a rather surprising admission given repeated claims from advocacy groups regarding the evils of sponsorship.

Notwithstanding this revelation, the ‘Critique’ by Vita CA appeared to have been commissioned with the aim of undermining research – funded by the English Football League – into associations between betting sponsorship, gambling participation (including by minors) and ‘problem gambling’ prevalence. Leaving aside the details of what is rather a flawed Critique (we counted 11 clear and obvious errors in its seven pages of analysis), the episode represents another dismal instance of claim and counter-claim in the debate on gambling reform. What is most concerning is the highly personal (and misleading) nature of the criticism – something that appears to be an emerging trend. Last year, a ‘reform’ activist launched a personal attack on an experienced professor from a Swedish university in relation to a study published in 2014.

The aim of these attacks appears to be the muzzling of dissent – the use of unsubstantiated slurs to discredit research findings and to deter researchers from future engagement. This week’s episode serves as a reminder that many of those who claim to occupy the moral high ground (and to care most about mental health) seek to elevate themselves through the use of misinformation and bullying tactics.

The ‘Critique’ provided the Labour MP for Swansea East, Carolyn Harris another opportunity to engage in the activity she appears to enjoy best – name-calling. This was just a week after her parliamentary lament against ad hominem disparagement (there is a name for people whose actions diverge diametrically from their words – but we suspect Mrs Harris may not like it).

Harris called for the EFL to withdraw the research (a suggestion that carries more than a whiff of censorship) and commented that the minister in charge of the review “absorbs things and…is capable of disseminating [sic] truth from fiction”. We hope that this assessment is correct although – based on the minister’s previous endorsements of the genuinely flawed Muggleton et al. (2020) and Public Health England (2021) reports on gambling harm – we have rather lower confidence.

 

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