By Arvind Hickman and Lindsay Bennett | 1 July 2016
This article first appeared in AdNews in print.
The fastest growing category of advertising is also one of its most controversial – sports gambling. Sports betting advertising has had a remarkable rise and is becoming ubiquitous in sport. What are the social consequences?
Watching a game of AFL or NRL on the telly these days it’s virtually impossible to avoid the proliferation of sports betting ads. In the past five years, sports betting has become as much a part of the footy as crunching tackles, soaring speckies and the obligatory meat pie.
Gambling is easily the fastest growing category in advertising and the rate of growth is eye-opening. Since 2011, the amount of money spent on gambling ads has risen from $91 million to $236 million in 2015, according to Standard Media Index (SMI) figures. That’s an increase of 160% and the majority of this has been on sports wagering.
By comparison, the next highest growth category over this period is recruitment (67%), education (65%) and fuel and gas (51%), while the market ad spend increased by just 7%. Of the 39 categories the SMI covers, gambling was the 28th largest spender on media in 2011. Last year it was 15th, in a period where the top spending 20 categories hardly changed.
Gambling adspend trumps pharmaceuticals, booze, real estate and cosmetics. At the current rate of growth, gambling could overtake banking, government and auto dealers within a year or so. In 2015, the biggest spenders among the betting agencies were Sportsbet, which had a 31% share of the total, followed by Crownbet (18%), William Hill (15%) and Ladbrokes (13%).
While many gamblers enjoy the activity in moderation there are growing concerns that advertising is exposing children and vulnerable young men to a practice that can potentially ruin lives.
During every telecast, a sports betting ad will teach you how to do a ‘multi’ or humour you with images of ‘the lads’ having a good time.
At the game’s ground, gambling promotions on billboards, players’ jernseys etc are plastered everywhere are hard to miss. And with a variety of smartphone betting apps it’s never been easier to place a punt on your favourite team, a scoreline, goalkicker or try scorer.
Some experts AdNews approached said gambling ads are normalising betting in sport and grooming the next generation of problem gamblers.
“It’s really, really awful. There is no good outcome from gambling,” author and social commentator, Jane Caro, told AdNews.
“In the end, the punter always loses and it destroys families, it destroys lives and people end up in jail because they embezzle to pay gambling debts. “It’s not like alcohol where moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers and problem drinkers. It’s like cigarettes – there’s no good outcome.”
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The betting industry argues it is taking a proactive approach to ensure advertising strikes the right balance between selling gambling to its target audience while not placing children and those vulnerable at risk.
However, some social workers and politicians are so concerned they are calling for an outright ban on sports betting ads, much in the way cigarette advertising was outlawed in the 70s.
Perception vs reality
Luke Waldron, Sportsbet’s general manager of media and sponsorship, told AdNews community concerns about the volume of advertising were not always based on fact and there was a “dearth of research in this area … and through our responsible gambling investment and team they are pursuing research-based evidence to understand this issue more”.
“It comes down to perception versus reality,” he said.
“We are constantly working with regulators, media partners, sporting codes and the rest of the industry to ensure we are finding the right balance in the sense of velocity that meets community expectations. That’s a constant watch.”
Ads placed during a live sports broadcast have certain restrictions such as mentioning live odds during play – broadcast rules that are monitored by Free TV.
If you take the AFL as an example, depending on how many goals are kicked and how long the game goes for, there’s approximately 80 to 90 TV commercials that appear in any televised AFL game.
“In the wagering category, all brands are currently restricted to under 10% of that content – seven or eight ads throughout the game, restricted to scheduled breaks,” he explained.
The growth of wagering advertising is thought to have accelerated after a 2008 High Court decision ruled on Betfair Limited Western Australia, in favour of the state government.
This has permitted gambling companies to be based in one state or territory and trade across others, leading many to set up shop in the Northern Territory where regulations around gambling are much more relaxed.
Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation head of knowledge and information, Tony Phillips, believes the bulk of the growth spiked in 2010 when “advertising kicked in, in a big way”.
“Everyone’s noticed [the rise in advertising] and it’s reflected in sports betting participation. It’s probably the only form of major gambling that’s been growing in participation in the last four to six years,” he said.
Between a commercial rock and an ethical hard place
There are three main beneficiaries of the explosion of sports betting advertising: sports administrators, media owners and the advertising industry.
Within the advertising industry, trying to get media agencies to talk about a sensitive issue that involves clients is never easy, but with gambling it proved extra challenging.
Illustrating the sensitive nature of the topic, AdNews had arranged an interview with a media agency leader which was cancelled at the last minute after push-back from a gambling client.
The sensitivity is understandable because the advertising sector, which produces the creative for gambling ads and then places them across media (mostly TV, digital and print), is stuck between a commercial rock and an ethical hard place.
In defence of adland, there is nothing illegal about sports betting ads and on occasions where advertisers have strayed, the authorities have generally pounced.
Earlier this year, Unibet and Bet365 were fined $7500 each for placing internet ads that promised refunds and betting credit (known in the industry as a ‘bonus’). Both of these inducements are banned in NSW.
Loraine Jokovic, the CEO of independent creative agency Loud Communications, recently helped create a responsible gambling campaign ‘You’re Stronger Than You Think’. She admitted agencies were in a tough position, but should “always be cogniscent of anything that impacts on society negatively, but that’s my view as the owner of an independent agency”.
Jokovic can make business decisions purely based on ethics, but that sort of freedom doesn’t necessarily exist in larger organisations.
“If you work in an industry where this kind of advertising is permitted then commercially it makes sense to work with these organisations,” she said.
“The conversation or decision from a societal point of view should not be made at an individual agency level, because you are always going to get a variation in terms of the decisions that are made. This is a legislative issue.”
It’s a point of view that Australian Greens Party leader, Richard Di Natale, who is pushing for legislative change, accepts. Di Natale doesn’t believe the advertising industry should be the “moral arbiters” of which products they should or shouldn’t promote, even if that makes some within industry “uncomfortable”.
“While it is a legal product I would expect the advertising industry to maximise the revenue it can make for that product,” Di Natale said.
Caro believes the advertising sector shouldn’t be using “marketing tricks” to entice vulnerable people to take a punt they can ill afford.
Although she doesn’t believe there should be a blanket ban, she added: “People who work in advertising who use powerful techniques to entice people to do various things always need to think carefully about the consequences.”
TV broadcasters broadly support sports betting ads as they are a major and growing source of revenue. In fact, broadcasters have, on occasion, gotten the balance wrong, such as Channel Nine’s ill-fated attempt to embed bookmaker, Tom Waterhouse, within the commentary team.
Interestingly, there is one TV network that refuses to show gambling ads, National Indigenous Television (NITV), as the Indigenous community is at a higher risk of developing problems with gambling.
National advertising sales manager, Craig Corcoran, told AdNews although he would love to be able to tap into the large revenues offered by gambling companies, it is not worth the harm it could cause to NITV’s audience.
For sports administrators, partnerships with betting agencies helps fill their coffers and allows them to better monitor betting irregularities, but not all sports clubs or codes believe the balance is right.
On the political landscape
As the volume of betting advertising has grown, so too has community opposition led by a handful of politicians, including independent senator, Nick Xenophon, and the Australian Greens Party.
In 2013, a government inquiry into sports gambling called for advertising to be scaled back, recommending amendments to the underpinning services Act 1992 to ban the advertising of live odds altogether, restrict sports betting advertising on television and radio during child-friendly hours and ban the promotion of betting by sports commentary teams.
Deakin University associate professor, Samantha Thomas, a leading authority on the effects of gambling ads on children, told AdNews reforms under the Gillard government only applied to a tiny percentage of betting advertising and promotion.
“At the time, I said this wasn’t going to do anything to effectively reduce the amount of advertising we were going to see, not only in commercial break advertising, but also the broad promotions around the ground transmitted into people’s homes,” she said.
“Your [SMI] statistics really show that in actual fact we’ve seen a big increase in advertising and we’ve not had a government that has adequately addressed it.”
More recently, former NSW premier, Barry O’Farrell, led an inquiry into the gambling sector, but the scope didn’t include the role of advertising – seen as a glaring omission by many.
“My sense is they didn’t do that because we are in an election year and they didn’t want to upset the broadcasters who make so much money from advertising,” Thomas said.
“Advertising is the number one issue [that needs to be addressed]. Over the years we’ve seen more ads that are trying to embed gambling into peer group behaviours. Now it’s about betting with your mates while you are watching the game.
“More recently we’ve seen ads around risk reduction promotions that create a perception that there is less risk involved with gambling.”
The Australian Greens Party has tabled a bill in parliament that calls for a complete ban of sports gambling advertising and sponsorship during sport.
“There’s widespread community concern about the growth of sports betting advertising,” Di Natali said. “Research indicates that it is influencing the behaviour of young kids and creating the gamblers of tomorrow.”
Di Natale isn’t opposed to gambling per se – he said adults should be free to have a punt – but its promotion shouldn’t be “shoved down people’s throats”, particularly through televised sport. The Greens’ ban echoes the prohibition of tobacco advertising in Australia in 1976 and while Di Natale accepts it’s a “very tough” position, he argues it reflects “the research and community expectations”.
When pressed on whether a total ban was excessive, the Greens leader said it was proportionate to the potential for serious harm that can arise from problem gambling.
The Australian Wagering Council (AWC), a lobby group that represents the interests of betting shops Bet365, Betfair, Centrebet, Sportsbet, Unibet, William Hill and Tomwaterhouse.com, has labelled the Greens’ proposal a “piecemeal, political gesture” that does not deal with the “realities of a global wagering market”.
“Comparisons between sports betting advertising and the advertising of known cancer-causing products, while headline grabbing, unhelpfully caricatures a genuinely complex issue of community concern and undermines the potential for collaboration between industry and the Greens to address those concerns,” AWC chief executive Ian Fletcher said.
Think about the children
A major concern for opponents to sports gambling advertising is the effect it can have on children. Although sports betting ads are not supposed to be shown during child-friendly hours, a loophole allows them to run during sports broadcasts, sports TV shows and news and current affairs. They also occur during other shows that are in timeslots children would be awake. An example of this AdNews noted is Nine’s Wide World of Sports which runs on Sunday mornings at 10am.
“We know with young children they find it difficult to distinguish the advertising from the game they are watching,” Di Natale said.
“In many instances you’ve got sports betting integrated as part of the broadcast and young kids find it hard to distinguish the activity of gambling and the sports activity itself.”
Thomas’ research examined the effect gambling ads have on children aged 8-16. It found they were able to recall a number of sports betting brands as well as the storylines of ads without prompting, particularly ads that are humorous.
“When you talk to kids, they look at those ads and very clearly will tell us about certain wagering providers showing ads on TV that if you make a certain bet and you lose they will give you your money back,” she said.
“It’s creating a perception with kids that you can’t lose at gambling. Perhaps the more concerning thing is that the marketing shows them that gambling is a normal part of sport and something you do if you are a fan.”
Thomas believes there are many parallels that can be drawn between the marketing strategy of tobacco and sports wagering, such as aligning with sport.
“We saw research on kids that thought if athletes were endorsing cigarettes it would make them better athletes if they smoked. In a way, we are seeing similar responses with kids in gambling marketing,” she said.
Dan Gregory, a behavioural researcher, strategist and chief executive of the Impossible Institute, told AdNews he doesn’t believe sports betting advertising has a great influence on children, who he argues are far more swayed by movies and video games.
“A movie is more influential than any ad could ever be. Those of us in the advertising industry tend to over-estimate ourselves and think we are more important than we probably are,” he said.
“We are well-positioned to exploit cultural norms as they shift, but are less influential than some of those other mediums.”
However, Gregory said the ease of gambling, which has been “gamified” on smartphones, combined with its cultural significance (Australians gambling on ANZAC day) and its connection with sport was a “potent mix”.
“If you’re a proper Australian you play sport and you probably gamble as well. It’s a cultural thing as much as anything else,” he said.
While betting agencies accept the industry can “always do more” to promote responsible gambling, Waldron pointed out that Sportsbet is leading the way with “millions of dollars” of investment in campaigns that promote safe wagering environments.
Despite Sportsbet and other betting agencies that support a national register for gamblers to opt out of betting, Sportsbet media exec, Rhiannon McMahon, admitted getting rid of state-based regulation would be helpful.
“It’s beneficial for everyone, brands and the community, if we can get to a place where we have national regulation,” she said.
Most experts AdNews spoke to have called for reforms that restrict the volume of advertising during child-friendly hours and all agree it’s something that needs to be tackled by the government.
As the election looms, any action in the near-term is unlikely, but Di Natale warns sports betting advertising will be hot on the agenda once the post-election dust settles.
The exact odds of change are hard to call, but it’s a safe bet that the status quo will shift. Advertising companies will be hedging their bets either way.