Gambling Blackout Beckons On Social Media

With the recent news that gambling companies in the UK will commence voluntarily excluding themselves from televised advertising during live sports from 2019, there is talk once again that a similar ban, or exclusion, could be considered on social media.

The principles behind the TV advertising ban are easy enough to understand; whilst gambling is both legal and big business in the UK, it can become an addiction (as can anything not done in moderation). There has been a long standing belief that by advertising live odds during sports – especially those adverts which offered people the chance to bet on a competition that was currently in play – compulsive gamblers would be more likely to make a bet.

More than ninety minutes of gambling commercials were shown during coverage of the recent football world cup, which some politicians within the country considered to be excessive, and it’s likely that such a move would have been forced by a Government act had the companies themselves not decided to step away. In addition to adverts not being shown during sports, there will be a yet-to-be-defined period both before and after a live sport being shown in which gambling commercials will not be shown, either.

Whilst politicians have welcomed the move, there are some who say it doesn’t go far enough, and would like to see the ban extended to social media, where the concern is that some children will see them.

Starting young

A report published by the UK’s Gambling Commission in 2017 showed that one in ten children follow gambling companies on social media, which is the source of such concerns. Whilst there’s nothing to suggest that these same children are actually gambling, some worry that children becoming familiar with major brands at such a young age will ‘normalize’ them to gambling, and make them more likely to gamble as they grow older. Again, whilst there’s nothing wrong with people gambling when they’re of legal age to do so, it’s forbidden to advertise alcohol in places where children are likely to see it, and the general belief is that gambling should be excluded for the same reason. It’s an activity for adults, and therefore only adults should be participating. Social media is, by and large, a place for the young.

A proposal to ban the advertising of gambling on social media has been raised before in 2016, as part of the Government’s general plan to combat problem gambling in the country, which included reducing the maximum stake people could place on fixed odds betting terminals. Although two years have passed and no formal legislation has taken place in terms of social media, the television blackout is sure to put the question back on the table.

Would it matter?

The impact of any such ban on the gambling industry would be difficult to project. It’s certainly the case that it’s easier for people to gamble now than it was twenty years ago. Before the internet, gambling had to be done in person, which made it easy to exclude children and also identify problem gamblers and turn them away. That was the age when one armed bandits and fruit machines were the preserve of bars and casinos. Now, UK online slots are more commonly found online on websites, which is a more difficult place to police. Responsible online slots websites take steps to make sure they’re not dealing with children, but it’s harder to identify a problem gambler, who might just log onto a different website if their access is blocked from their usual choice.

There’s also the question of how gambling websites are supposed to promote themselves if they’re not allowed to use social media to do so. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are huge centers of internet traffic, powered and funded by marketing to make them free at point of use to the average customer. It’s a multi billion dollar industry which absolutely has the right to exist, and the right to promote its products. On top of that, anybody who’s used Facebook Ads knows that they can be tailored very accurately by demographic; you can decide who sees your adverts based on their age, location, interests and more. It seems spectacularly unlikely that any gambling company would waste money paying for their adverts to be seen by children, when children can’t gamble. Therefore, if they are seeing the adverts, it’s happening by accident. That can be said about advertising for any product in the world, and isn’t something that gambling companies should be made responsible for any more than a child walking past a promotional poster for a nightclub is the nightclub’s fault.

Nobody wins

Given the amount of money involved in gambling, and presumably the amount of that money that’s spent on social media marketing, it would be hard to see anyone being happy with a blanket ban. The social media companies would lose out on a huge chunk of income which is difficult to see being replaced from elsewhere, and gambling companies, who now do huge amounts of their business online, would be left trying to work out other ways to reach their audience other than one of the most common ways people engage with the internet. Both would likely be left out of pocket. Facebook in particular, given the terrible year of press that it’s had – which has had a knock on effect on its stock value – would be very unhappy to see its profits cut further by losing major advertising partners.

Whilst there is an argument to say that gambling should be marketed responsibly; and of course that anyone found to be marketing directly to children or gambling addicts should face censure; a blanket ban on social media advertising would seem excessive, and counterproductive from a financial point of view for any Government which banned them. Where there is large operating profit, there is also large tax revenue for whichever country the company in profit operates within. Whilst gambling companies are still free to advertise on the shirts of sports teams, and by sponsoring major events, we can probably still expect to see them on social media from time to time.