The Media's Role In Our Gambling Epidemic

The media - print, advertising, marketing - has an enormous role to play in reporting how gambling affects the fabric of society and real people's lives. But it must do so in a transparent way and look to itself if it wants to uncover the truth, rather than just attack digital media.

It's a scandal - and yet again those nasty interweb companies are to blame. Children are being encouraged to download apps that encourage them to gamble. Trivial amounts at first but, like the most addictive of drugs, it only takes a little to encourage dependency.

Except this is a rather convenient story for the newspapers to tell and allows them to ignore their own role in the UK's gambling epidemic and the child victims caught up in it.

Lack of transparency is one of the most troubling traits of today's media. It's why that no matter how good the product, levels of trust among the public are lower than ever.

It's something I first considered a few weeks ago when The Times newspaper ran the latest in an occasional - and excellent - series highlighting Britain's gambling epidemic. (The recent Sunday Times 'scoop' about digital downloads is part of this campaign.) Here is the introduction to that Times story about the dangers posed to children:

'Figures show that the industry has spent £1.4 billion on advertising since 2012, with online casinos doubling their marketing budgets over the past five years. Britain's biggest charity to help addicts is so concerned about the increasing volume of advertising that it is urging ministers to introduce stricter rules. Kate Lampard, the chairwoman of gambling watchdog GambleAware, says: "With the average age at which children start to watch post-watershed TV unsupervised being 11¾, restrictions based on a 9pm watershed may offer little protection."'

Except that there is an advertising issue more troubling than either the watershed or online casinos, as GambleAware and The Times know. It is daytime television, particularly during live sports events, where children are targeted by an astonishing array of advertisements persuading them to use phones, tablets and PCs to gamble away their (and their parents') money.

Just a few days ago, the Local Government Association issued an alarming report which revealed that one in 10 children aged 11-15 follow gambling companies on social media, having been heavily influenced by TV ads during sports broadcasts. Try Googling the newspapers' reporting of that study - the silence is rather deafening.

I conducted a small experiment myself on a recent Saturday afternoon and watched Sky Sports - whose major shareholder Rupert Murdoch also controls NewsUK, the publisher of The Times.

During Sky's live football coverage between noon and 5pm, I counted 64 advertisements that sought to part the consumer from their cash (I ignored plugs for Sky TV). Thirty seven of these were for consumer goods and the other 27 urged people to 'bet now', 'cash out' and, inevitably, 'win'. So more than 42% of adverts selling me a product before the watershed were encouraging me to gamble.

The companies that paid Sky a hefty sum to run these ads - money that will no doubt contribute to the financial health of all of Mr Murdoch's companies - were: Paddy Power, BetFair, Coral, Ladbrokes, Betway, 365, Betstars, William Hill, Sky Bet and Lotto. There was also a 10-minute interview with a footballer wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Bet Victor, together with the inevitable in-programme logos on clothes, billboards and studio walls.

I didn't time the length of the ads but if we assume each was about 30 seconds, then there was close to a quarter of an hour of gambling adverts that went out in the middle of Saturday afternoon, at a time when children are most likely to be watching television.

Other countries have woken up to the problem and earlier this year the Australian government pledged to end gambling advertising during live sports events before 8.30pm. Instead, the UK's media industry (dependent upon gambling advertising) is focusing on equally-destructive aspects such as fixed odds betting terminals. Pre-watershed advertising is, largely, ignored.

GambleAware's argument which The Times publicised - that the advertising industry must do more to protect society's most vulnerable when they watch TV in the evening - represents only a small part of the story.

Presumably, the watchdog, whose trustees include the bosses of Ladbrokes Coral and Rank - two of Britain's most powerful gambling organisations - has its own interests to protect as well as the consumers'.

Likewise, the Times rather conveniently omits to mention the astonishing success of the Sun Bets gambling website and app, a heavily-publicised off-shoot of its sister paper, The Sun.

Excessive gambling is as great a danger to people's lives as excessive drinking and smoking. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, cigarette companies like Benson & Hedges, Dunhill and Silk Cut were being eased out of sponsoring live events because their glossy products hastened death. I don't know whether I bought cigarettes because of such highly visible daytime advertising but I'm sure it was a contributory factor. I don't know whether my son and his friends think betting is a laugh because people like 'I-gamble-responsibly' Ray Winstone advocate it, but I wouldn't be surprised if watching TV on a Saturday afternoon was also a contributory factor.

Recent figures compiled by Nielsen indicate the gambling industry spent £312m in 2016 on ads, a 63% rise on the comparable figure for 2012. Roughly half of this was for television. Ever since 2005's gambling act, the British gambling industry has been growing at a frightening rate. Gross gambling yield - the amount gambling firms win from customers - was £8.36bn in the year beginning April 2008. In the year to September 2016, it reached a record £13.8bn.

No wonder the Gambling Commission recently revealed that 69% of people think betting is dangerous for family life and that there are now more than 400,000 'problem' gamblers, one in five of whom attempt to kill themselves.

The media - print, advertising, marketing - has an enormous role to play in reporting how gambling affects the fabric of society and real people's lives. But it must do so in a transparent way and look to itself if it wants to uncover the truth, rather than just attack digital media. It's not just The Times - on a recent Friday, I counted 14 adverts on the sports pages of London's Evening Standard, 13 of which promoted gambling.

As for the gambling companies, since they have purloined the word 'responsible' to reshape their consumer narratives, I wonder what would happen if one of the brands took the moral high ground by pledging not to advertise on television before 6pm. Yes, it would lose some penetration in the teenage market but it might also win some respect from the media, politicians and the general public. And, in taking a stand, persuade us that the brand represents something more important than profit. Societal responsibility, for instance.

It would be a gamble but perhaps one worth taking.


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