Under the spotlight – by Martyn Hannah

With the UK government planning a major crackdown on daytime TV ads, EGR Digital Marketing looks at the industry’s relationship with the ASA and whether serious changes need to be made.

The gambling industry’s relationship with TV advertising is once again under the spotlight after it was revealed the government is planning a major crackdown to better protect children and problem players. Operators have more than doubled the amount they spend on TV ads since 2012, paying out £162m this year alone.

Bookies were already feeling the heat after a slew of adverts were banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in recent weeks for being misleading, inappropriate, or sexual in nature. Among those to have their knuckles wrapped were Coral, Ladbrokes, and mischief-makers Paddy Power. And while past ASA rulings appear to have had little impact on operators – the watchdog is seen by many to have bark but no real bite – things look set to change now the government is breathing down their necks.

But could it be argued that egaming operators are being unfairly targeted? Gambling didn’t feature in the top 10 most complained about ads last year; the number one accolade went to moneysupermarket.com for its ad showing a balding middle-aged man twerking in denim shorts.

The gambling industry has its own specific section under the Code, aimed at helping marketers walk the fine line between what is and isn’t suitable. However, it doesn’t take much to see an advert face scrutiny.

“The ASA is a complaint driven watchdog, which means a single complaint from a viewer will trigger an investigation into any given advert”, says Keith Duddy, head of content at digital marketing agency, Dice London. “Some people object to gambling for moral or religious reasons, and therefore take delight in trying to derail gambling companies, particularly those who run adverts on the telly. To that end, I don’t buy that gambling ads are necessarily more complained about than other industries”, he adds.

And news of the government’s sharpened focus on advertising comes as something of a surprise, according to Clive Hawkswood, CEO of the Remote Gambling Association. Only last year did the government complete a review of gambling advertising, where no major changes to the rules around advertising were recommended, bar a ban on free bet ads before the watershed.

While Hawkswood said he would cooperate with a new review, he doesn’t expect the outcome to be any different little more than 12 months on. “In the circumstances it would be unexpected and unusual to commission another widespread review of gambling advertising only a year later because there is no reason why it would lead to a different outcome”, he said.

 

Too good to be true

But gambling operators do continue to fall foul of the Code on a regular basis, certainly more than other ‘vice’ products such as alcohol. So why do they find themselves in hot water so often?

Anna Soilleux-Mills, senior associate at Olswang, says it is because of the prolific use of free bets and bonuses by operators to attract new players. “The issue with these offers is that they are rarely as good as they seem at first glance – players usually have to wager their deposits and free bets many times over before they can cash out”, she says.

“In many cases these significant conditions aren’t mentioned in the ads and are instead buried deep in the small print a few clicks away,” Soilleux-Mills adds. “This is a breach of the CAP Code and, more importantly, the Gambling Commission’s licence conditions and codes of practice.”

Misleading ads take up the majority of the ASA’s time, around 75% in fact. So by focusing on free bets and bonuses, egaming marketers are setting themselves up for a fall. Of course, these tools have long been an effective way of increasing sign-ups and driving revenues. But if operators wish to continue using them, more needs to be done to ensure they don’t breach the code. And it’s not a tall order; marketers just have to include ‘significant’ conditions in the ad itself, or make sure they are one click away on their site.

 

Push the boundaries

The real question, then, is whether the industry wants to change its approach or whether they are reluctant to upset the current risk/reward status quo. “It’s often the same operators who fall foul of the ASA time and time again”, says Soilleux-
Mills. “The ASA doesn’t have a great deal of power. It can ban ads and publish rulings which can result in some negative PR, but it doesn’t have fining powers. It may be the case that operators are taking commercial risks – choosing to take the risk of the ASA ruling against them in favour of the new players and revenues these offers can generate for them”, she adds.

The government is mulling plans to ban operators from running adverts during the day, even when a major sporting event is being broadcast, as they believe this is when children are being exposed to them. The industry is already pushing back against greater oversight with evidence that its ads are regulated and monitored by Clearcast, the body that approves ads for broadcast on the UK’s commercial television channels.

Indeed, most broadcasters will not air an advert unless it has been given the Clearcast stamp of approval, particularly for those advertising gambling sites and wagering products. The purpose of doing this is to head-off any potential
problems with the ASA before they happen. But when the watchdog upholds a complaint, it challenges Clearcast’s decision to give an ad the green light, and also casts a shadow over the marketing agency that designed it and the operator which commissioned it.

 

Butting heads

Does this mean that the relationship between Clearcast and the ASA needs to be bettered, and a clearer, more detailed Code re-drafted for gambling operators and marketers? The general consensus is no.

“I don’t think it is in anyone’s interest to have a 100-page document detailing what is and isn’t permissible, in every permutation for every possible scenario”, says Duddy. “The industry changes too quickly for that to be a realistic way forward. The system we have is fine. It works, mostly, and is always going to prompt debate as far as compliance and complaints are concerned because it’s gambling – it’s just the nature of the beast”.

Soilleux-Mills also believes the ASA needs to be more consistent in its application of the rules: “The ASA rulings appear inconsistent, particularly when the ads in question are age-gated. This uncertainty and lack of any specific guidance means that it can be difficult for operators to determine if their ads are compliant. The rules and guidelines are there, but they need to be clearer and the ASA needs to be more consistent in how it deals with ads that have a particular appeal to children”.

The concern is that stricter rules will stifle creativity and hold back innovation. But that could already be taking place – in defending one particular ad that had fallen foul of the ASA, Clearcast said the visuals were “in line with hundreds of other commercials for gambling” transmitted since the Code had come into force. This implies that marketers are simply rolling out endless re-mixes of the same adverts, with small tweaks made depending on the brand and product rather than being brave enough to try something new.

“It’s the creep of insecurity by the decision makers”, says Duddy. “If something has worked previously, then it must work again. But we are already seeing viewer fatigue with the endless promise of free bets, sign-up bonuses, and free spins. There are very few gambling ads that viewers can recall. Great ads are memorable because the brands took creative risks or were really funny; hats off to Paddy Power, a lighthouse in a sea of mediocrity. Gambling is more widely accepted than ever before, which provides opportunities to think again, advertise without bonuses, and to make the brand cool, aspirational, and fun”.

Whether marketers take the risk and look to shake things up remains to be seen, but perhaps something needs to be done to ensure greater compliance with the ASA if they are to stave off interference from the government. The industry may claim it doesn’t need greater oversight, but if operators continue to fall foul of ASA guidelines, that is exactly what the powers that be will perceive to be the case.

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