The government wants to impose new controls on the way gambling is promoted in an attempt to curb the rise in people with serious gambling problems. As one government source put it: the gambling industry’s “luck has run out”. They argue that gambling brands are increasing the amount they advertise and employing new techniques to target vulnerable audiences. TV broadcasters have already earned £162m from gambling ads this year.
The industry quickly came out firing. Industry representatives claim that the government is “looking to make a point” based on a “gut reaction” rather than evidence. They pointed out that recent reviews by independent bodies have concluded that gambling adverts are not driving people to gamble and highlighted the “significant restrictions” that are already in place to limit what advertisers can do.
What are they regulating?
While the number of gambling ads might have grown, they account for a very small amount of the advertising market. For instance, less than 1% of adverts served online in the UK are for gambling products – half the amount for charities and public services. And it is difficult to accept that the ads themselves are more unethical than any other type of advert.
The main difference, as with tobacco and alcohol advertising, is that they promote a “vice product”. As US academic and marketing expert Jerry Kirkpatrick wrote in his 1985 essay, A Philosophic Defense of Advertising, when policymakers try to regulate advertising, they really want to regulate behaviour. If the real problem is serious gambling, surely the government proposals are wrongheaded.
However, it is also true to say that the “significant restrictions” on gambling ads are not terribly robust. Advertising regulation in the UK is fairly messy already. For various historical and legal reasons, we operate two separate codes – BCAP for broadcast media and CAP for all other media.
Each code has a slightly different focus and some different requirements on advertisers. Equally, each code has a different status. BCAP forms part of a co-regulatory arrangement with statutory bodies. CAP is part of a self-regulatory arrangement between advertisers themselves. To regulate TV and online gambling adverts, the government will have to deal with both codes and both systems.
CAP and BCAP have sections on gambling which set out the need for gambling advertisements “to protect under-18s and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by advertising that features or promotes gambling”. They restrict when gambling ads can be shown and how gambling is promoted. For example, gambling ads cannot “suggest that gambling can provide an escape from personal, professional or educational problems”, “suggest that gambling can enhance personal qualities” and “feature anyone who is, or seems to be, under 25 years old gambling or playing a significant role. No-one may behave in an adolescent, juvenile or loutish way”.
However, these rules are effectively only enforced when someone makes a complaint against an ad to the Advertising Standards Authority – something vulnerable people might find it difficult to do – and they are judged in terms of the likely response by an “average” consumer. This is the real problem. The likelihood of someone actually complaining is very low and the likelihood of a complaint being accepted is even lower. So are gambling ads problematic in these terms?
What the numbers tell us
The ASA provides access to the past six years’ of complaints that it received. I have been collating these since 2009. In this time there have been 4,148 complaints relating to ads for gambling products. This is 2% of all the complaints the ASA received. About 10% of these complaints – 409 to be exact – have been upheld by the ASA. For comparison, 13% of all complaints have been upheld in the same period. It is worth noting that many complaints refer to the same ad – so the number of ads which have been subject to complaint is likely to be much lower. A Ladbrokes ad, for example, received 98 separate complaints.
Are gambling ads getting worse? Not if we go by complaints. At their peak, nearly 1,000 complaints were made against gambling ads in a 12-month period. But for the past two years, this has gone down to 350 complaints – and just 6% of these complaints have been upheld. Putting these numbers into context, the total complaints each year for all products has actually gone up across the same period from a low of 23,000 to 28,000. And the percentage of all complaints that is upheld has also risen.
So, does gambling advertising need more regulation? The evidence is mixed. Some of the issues with the current system are just that – issues with the overall system of regulation not specific issues with gambling ads. The system is far from perfect. But one thing is clear – changing the rules for advertising will have a marginal effect on people’s behaviour. The government might be better off trying to tackle the actual problem: gambling itself.