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Brand Strategy Agencies Mental Health

Is it time for the advertising industry to give up its gambling addiction?

By Ellie Malpas, Strategist

Media Bounty


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February 21, 2023 | 10 min read

Ellie Malpas and Alicia Upton of Media Bounty make the case for an industry-wide boycott of gambling companies.

The interior of a casino

Should marketers boycott gambling companies? / Kvnga via Unsplash

Gambling accounts’ gigantic budgets, celebrity-filled shoots, and association with sports give them the nostalgic allure of advertising’s hedonistic heyday. But under the glitz and glamor hides a predatory system that is costing real lives. Marketing in this space preys on the most vulnerable users, purposefully propelling people into a vicious cycle of hardship.

In the crux of a crippling cost-of-living crisis where inflation and suicide rates are at record levels, it’s time the advertising industry finally re-evaluated its relationship with gambling.

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How big is the pot?

The last three years have been defined by instability. The pandemic has led to two years of wage stagnation and the current cost-of-living crisis is leading to the worst levels of inflation in 40 years. Despite consumers’ disposable income levels hitting record lows, levels of gambling are expected to increase.

When the pipe dreams of meritocracy fail, gambling gives a shot of false hope for a more prosperous way of life. Pair this with highly addictive, 24-hour, mobile-first formats and it’s clear to see why, in 2022, a quarter of gamblers had increased their habits over the last year. The industry has responded (in numbers from 2020) by tripling social media spend and doubling sponsorship spend. Despite the economic downturn, the industry is thought to have grown by 18% in 2022.

At a time when the nation sits on the brink of recession, you won't be alone in questioning the boycott of a profitable industry. In the UK, the gambling industry was recently valued at £14.7bn ($17.8bn) and is estimated to employ over 100,000 people, marketers and advertisers included. But with the biggest gambling sites, including Bet365 and William Hill, listing subsidiaries in tax havens from the Isle of Man to the Cayman Islands, the benefits to the economy are severely restricted.

A dark side to targeting

The industry’s marketing strategies make it particularly dangerous. In the UK, there are over 260,000 problem gamblers (that’s more than the population of Plymouth). These addicts are not treated as vulnerable groups in need of support but as high-value customers. Under the guise of protection and fraud prevention, troves of data are collected about players, from the amount of money spent per session to the types of marketing they’re most susceptible to. They are then hyper-targeted according to the extent of their problem. It’s no wonder a shocking 60% of gambling companies’ profits come from just 5% of users.

Research by Clean Up Gambling has exposed Flutter, the world’s largest gambling company and owners of Paddy Power and Sky Bet, as a user of this malicious tech. These highly targeted online adverts and promotions leave users one click away from a life-derailing gambling session, meaning that addicts and those in recovery must carry the weight of temptation in their pockets 24/7.

In TV advertising, other tactics are used to draw people in and to trick them into thinking they can beat the bookies. More complicated odds that are difficult for players to comprehend are favored over simple, less risky bets during tournaments, encouraging more dangerous play. Fast-paced and colorful, these ads’ tone often replicates the excitement of gambling; images of winning downplay the actual probability of losing.

Gambling addiction impacts every corner of life: relationships, housing, employment, and sense of self-worth. Many victims will feel like a burden on those close to them as they see ripples of impact on family, friends and partners. It’s a phenomenon that disproportionally affects men, who are seven-and-a-half times more likely than women to become problem gamblers, something often linked to the prevalence of gambling advertising in sports.

Football game ad breaks are 95% gambling-related, and stadiums are wallpapered with sponsorship from betting firms. Dr Robert Lefever claims that this factor paired with hedonistic aspects of ‘male’ culture, makes a disastrous cocktail.

This is costing lives. 400 suicides in the UK a year are gambling related. We cannot begin to tackle the male suicide crisis without accountability for the industry’s relationship with gambling addiction. While proposed new restrictions are on the horizon (including the exemption of big sporting personalities and social media stars in brand advertising), bigger reform reviews were pushed back by the government for the fourth time last March. This is largely due to lobbying from the betting giants, who wave the threat of fewer taxes to talk the treasury out of tougher restrictions.

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Marketing’s problem?

In the absence of policy, agencies must take the lead in approaching the issue. There are many ways that the harms of gambling advertising could be reduced. Frequency capping rules (which limit the number of times an ad can be served to an individual) could be tightened to limit re-targeting, or ad-serving platforms could let users opt out of gambling advertising altogether.

Recent blanket bans for fossil fuel advertising in France, Australia and The Netherlands show that a more drastic approach is possible. Look back at the tobacco advertising ban in the 60s: 1,200 fewer people died due to cigarette-related causes just one year afterward. These measures can save lives. That’s why we are asking agencies to join us in an outright boycott of gambling advertising.

Media Bounty proudly gives the cold shoulder to gambling, fast fashion, tobacco and fossil fuel companies, to name a few. As architects of desire, we have responsibility for the real people behind the KPIs. By feeding the gambling industry’s predatory approach to marketing, the advertising industry must finally face up to its contribution to the death toll. Whether you’re a junior, an HR manager or a CMO, putting pressure on your agency to say no to gambling for good may be the closest you come to saving a life.

Brand Strategy Agencies Mental Health

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