MPs Say Operators Still Advertising Despite Ban

According to MPs, gambling companies are not sticking to their word when it comes to the recent pledge not to advertise on TV and radio. In April BGC members committed to the voluntary ad ban for the rest of the duration of the coronavirus outbreak, to help combat problem gambling. However, MPs have criticized operators for airing what they call adverts disguised as social responsibility messages.

Person playing a brightly lit slot machine in a casino.

The BGC’s TV and radio gambling ad ban will stay in place until June 5th. ©Erik Mclean/Unsplash

MPs Want Government Action

At the end of April, the Betting and Gaming Council announced that its members would remove their adverts from TV and radio for the rest of the coronavirus lockdown. The voluntary decision was taken to protect customers, as the lockdown has meant increased exposure to TV and radio for many. This has led to concerns that vulnerable people and children may be at increased risk of gambling harms.

The BGC is a standards body that represents around 90% of the UK’s gambling industry, including bookmakers, online casinos and offline casinos, and bingo halls. The BGC does not represent the National Lottery, which accounts for 21.4% of British gambling, or any black-market operators.

This means, that while most gambling ads will not be permitted on TV or radio during the lockdown, the National Lottery will still be allowed to advertise. The voluntary measure only applies to casino, slots and bingo. Sports betting is regarded separately, but is still subject to the ‘whistle to whistle ban’.

Operators are currently allowed to show branded safer gambling messaging and continue with sponsorship as long as they do not promote specific products. However, MPs now say that operators have fallen foul of their own pledge, as the line between safer gambling messaging and out advertising has become vague.

The voluntary TV and radio ad ban came into place on Friday 08th May, with safer gambling messaging being aired instead of commercials. The messaging is aimed to help customers keep gambling in control, by offering sensible advice such as limiting deposits. However, some messaging has been found to contain language that actively encourages customers to gamble.

A cross-party group of MPs has written to culture minister, Nigel Huddleston, over what they have described as glorified adverts. The Gambling Related Harm APPG is chaired by Labour MP Carolyn Harris, a prominent advocate for tighter gambling regulations. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative party is also a member of the APPG.

“These are clearly just forms of advertising under the thinly veiled guise of a social responsibility message.”

Responsible Messaging or Just More Ads?

A number of examples of operators promoting their services through safer gambling messaging were raised. Online casino Mr Green, a brand owned by William Hill, aired a safer gambling message which ended “Enjoy award-winning online casino with Mr Green”. A message from SkyVegas also said “That’s why I play at SkyVegas”, while a Paddy Power message aired on Comedy Central didn’t seem to contain any safer gambling advice at all.

Critics also pointed out that operators chose to air their safer gambling messages under the banner of their online casino divisions rather than their broader brands. While sporting events are canceled and bookmakers have little to offer, online casinos have seen an increase in customer use. The lockdown has given some people more spare time, which is a risk for those who have previously struggled with a gambling problem.

The Gambling Related Harm APPG has called on the government to take action on the issue, as they deem that the industry’s self-regulation is far from satisfactory at the moment.

The Betting and Gaming Council, which spearhead the voluntary ad ban, has countered the accusations. It reminded critics that 50% of gambling ads aired are not from BGC members, and that it is only BGC members that agreed to the voluntary measures in the first place. It also reiterated what it said when it first announced the ad ban. “Existing TV & radio advertising slots will be replaced by safer gambling messages, donated to charities or removed from broadcast where contracts permit.”

However, criticism of the BGC’s TV and radio gambling ad ban has been rife on social media platforms. Professor Samantha Thomas, a gambling marketing expert at Deakin University in Australia is concerned by the impact that current safer gambling messaging could have on those vulnerable to gambling harms.

“All the evidence from areas like alcohol and tobacco tells us that industry educational ads achieve nothing, and can contribute to promoting and normalizing the brands. An especially concerning aspect is that they are actually inviting people to visit their websites. That is still promoting the companies.”

On behalf of Gambling with Lives, a charity that helps families affected by gambling-related suicide, Charles Ritchie also had harsh words for the BGC. “Instead of shouting ‘prohibitionist’ at anyone who wants a properly regulated gambling industry, the BGC should get their own members to act honorably and decently.”

“The multiple adverts across all commercial TV channels on Saturday shows that the much-trumpeted gambling advertising ban is just hypocritical PR and the gambling industry is incapable of self-regulation.”

Ritchie’s comment was in reference to the BGC’s phrasing when it first announced the lockdown gambling ad ban. Chief Executive Michael Dugher’s words seemed to foreshadow that the BGC’s TV and radio ad ban could spark controversy. “There will always be alarmist noises from anti-gambling prohibitionists who just want to grab headlines, but it is this serious, constructive and evidence-led approach by the BGC’s regulated members that has resulted in this further major change.”

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