Four UK betting firms have faced criticism from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for using online ads which the regulator claims target vulnerable people.
The ads in question were created and placed by “affiliates” – agencies which get paid to direct potential customers towards company websites, in this case online casinos. The advert raised alarm bells for the ASA because of its suggestion that online gambling could provide a solution for people struggling with serious personal and financial difficulties. As well as this, the ad was presented as if it were a genuine news article.
In the ad, “William” tells the viewer of his descent into £130,000 of debt as a result of caring for his wife, who is suffering from cancer. He describes feeling “depressed”, before stumbling across an advert for an online casino on Facebook. After winning the jackpot using a promotional free £10 bet, he describes how his financial woes “came to an abrupt end”.
The affiliate company which produced the ad was used by Ladbrokes, Sky Vegas, 888, and Casumo, all of whom claim to not “condone” the advertising strategy used. However, since the advert directly benefitted the companies in question, they may still face penalties as a result. A spokesperson from the Gambling Commission, the regulatory body for gambling in the UK, explains that “we expect operators to take action to ensure that they have a clear view of what their affiliates are doing on their behalf”. The Commission has already fined betting firms BGO and Lottoland over misleading adverts, but has so far declined to say whether similar actions will be taken against the four companies involved in this instance.
The fiasco has led Sky Vegas to disband its use of affiliates for advertising altogether, whilst Ladbrokes have claimed to be “working to improve the types of advertising and marketing used by affiliates”.
Gambling in the UK
Ensuring that adverts for gambling firms are ethical is becoming increasingly important, as the number of people in the UK struggling with problem gambling is on the rise. According to a study by the Gambling Commission, the number of problem gamblers rose by a third between 2012 and 2015, and currently stands at more than 400,000. Online gambling in particular has seen a substantial rise in popularity, suggesting that online ads especially need to be carefully vetted to avoid targeting vulnerable people. The charity, Gamble Aware, further found that problem gamblers spent an average of £98 on the habit every single day, and were far more likely than people without a gambling problem to place bets in the middle of the night. This information could be used by companies to help identify customers who may be struggling with a gambling problem, the charity suggests. If a user’s activity suggested problem gambling, they could be offered help, or perhaps the option to suspend their account, automatically.
This is not what is happening, however. 888 has already been fined for its online conduct. Its online platform allowed 7,000 members access to their services despite the customers opting to exclude themselves in an effort to combat problem gambling. 888 was fined £7.8 million.
Following the criticism that affiliate programmes have received, a spokesperson from the Campaign for Fairer Gambling suggested that “operators constantly need new customers, as a huge proportion of their existing player base get into financial difficulty as a result of gambling-related harm”. This indictment of the gambling industry’s approach to advertising does suggest that companies often target vulnerable people, since customers likely to develop a gambling addiction – those struggling with personal or financial problems – are profitable to companies.
Gambling, Debt, and Mental Health
The ASA particularly criticised the affiliate ad for its mention of depression. The character struggling with debt in the advert reported feeling depressed, which is extremely common in people with high levels of personal debt. A survey by , the UK’s largest insolvency company, found that 86% of those seeking debt help found that debt had a noticeable impact on their mental health. The connection works both ways, as people who have poor mental health are far more likely to fall into debt than the population at large, creating a vicious cycle. Even worse, gambling makes it far more difficult for people to access help with their debt, so they could even end up locked in a cycle where it seems as if winning money is the only answer to their financial problems. It is easy to see how, in a poor financial and personal situation, people might be tempted to turn to gambling in the hope of making money quickly.
This hope is exactly what the affiliate ad preyed on, leading to the deputy leader of the Labour party, Tom Watson, describing the video as “disgusting”, and advocating “strong action against the beneficiaries”. Watson has also suggested banning football clubs from signing shirt sponsorship deals with gambling companies. Such deals were worth £47.3 million in the current season alone, suggesting a troubling ubiquity of advertisements for gambling services. The main worry for Watson, when it comes to football shirt deals, is that the millions of children who regularly watch football matches are exposed to gambling as an accepted part of life at an early age, making them more likely to develop an addiction in later life.
Advertising such as this clearly needs to be tackled if people in precarious financial situations, or at risk of a gambling addiction, are to be adequately protected.
This post was written in collaboration wit Creditfix.