Gambling advertising on social media | The key challenges and take-aways

Person holding a smartphoneRaffaello Rossi, one of our PhD Researchers at the School of Management (now a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bristol Business School), was recently invited to take part in a podcast produced by the German news outlet Der Spiegel. Alongside the president of the German sports betting association, a solicitor specialising in gambling law, and a representative of the state authority, they discussed the current state of eSports betting, and how the research into the UK gambling advertising sphere on Twitter by the University of Bristol, might foreshadow what could happen in Germany, which is currently in the process of deregulating their online betting market. In the following piece, Raffaello reflects on the key-challenges of social media gambling advertising.

In 2005 the UK put itself at the global forefront of deregulation by opening up the gambling market and, along with it, advertising for sports betting, online betting and poker. Today, 16 years later, the effect of this policy seems omnipresent – only within the past couple of days major UK newspapers headlined:

  • 3nd February: Gambling companies ordered to slow down addictive online slot machines amid growing evidence of harm (The Independent, 2021)
  • 4th February: Even low levels of gambling linked to financial hardship, study finds (The Guardian, 2021)
  • 5th February: Gambling industry chief accused of mocking recovering addict on Twitter (The Telegraph, 2021)
  • 6th February: Young people are NINE times more likely to attempt suicide if they are problem gamblers, study finds (DailyMail, 2021)
  • 6th February: Betting in sport: Clubs told adverts on social media could cause ‘harm’ (BBC, 2021).

Our research with Ipsos MORI and Demos (sponsored by GambleAware) on gambling advertising on Twitter, uncovered a range of issues that are particularly worrisome as they appear to be beyond the scope and consideration of current regulations – furthering the notion of social media still being an “online wild west” lacking sufficient regulation. Addressing this issue, and therefore reacting to ongoing pressure from academics, journalists, NGOs and former addicts, the UK Government has recently announced a review of the Gambling Act to “ensure gambling laws are fit for digital age” – suggesting a shift towards tougher regulations.

With other countries, such as the US or Germany currently in the process of deregulating online betting and the advertising thereof, there is an elephant in the room: What are the major social media gambling advertising challenges in the UK and what can other countries learn from it? Drawing on our research we present two key challenges and suggest how regulators could address them:

“We all have that one friend…” – Highly sharable content

Almost half of the 888,000 Twitter gambling adverts we analysed on first sight had nothing to do with gambling, and some of them were – to be quite honest – really funny. If you are wondering why gambling providers should post adverts that have apparently nothing to do with gambling, you are not alone – the reason is somewhat cheeky: For organic posts (non-paid-for adverts) to be able to reach many users they have to be shared, liked or commented on by the senders own followers in order to be seen by other users that do not actually follow the initial sender of the advert.  But ask yourself: Would you share or like a gambling advert? Probably not.

But what if you don´t recognise that the funny post that compares falling football players with scenes from The Simpsons is indeed gambling adverting. Would you be inclined to like or share it now? Possibly!

By using such seemingly unrelated content, gambling advertisers are making use of a loop-hole in social media advertising regulations, in which brands do not have to label their adverts as “Ads” or “Sponsored Content” if they do not pay for it – often making it impossible to distinguish between advertising and non-commercial posts – especially for children and young persons who have less experience in recognising advertising. This helps understand why we found in our research that 7% of the users sharing or commenting gambling advertising were under 16, and 63% were 16-23 years old.

For regulators this means two things. Firstly, we believe all posts sent by gambling accounts on social media should be visibly labelled as “advertising” to give users the chance to immediately recognise whether a post has a commercial nature or not. Secondly, there is a danger that these seemingly innocent, harmless and funny ads disguise the potentially harmful effect gambling can have – even if they are recognised as advertising. Accordingly, regulators need to make sure to include guidance that clearly sets out the rules for (or even fully prohibit) the use of content that has no obvious connection to gambling (e.g. cartoons, memes or news).

eSports betting: A game changer?

The other key challenge of regulating social media gambling advertising our research identified is an upcoming trend: eSports betting – which is the betting on the outcomes of competitively played computer games such as Fortnite or League of Legends. The main worry with adverts for eSports betting is their strong appeal to children – and thus, their breach of advertising rules.  Indeed, we found 74% of eSports betting adverts on Twitter contravene current UK advertising regulations – many in respect to being appealing to children. Moreover, we also found that 17% of eSports gambling accounts followers are under 16 years old and 69% between 16-23 years old – meaning that only 6% are 24 or above.

While this is certainly a shocking finding, it is not really surprising.  We know that professional eSports players start their careers at around 16 to 17 years of age, and that 70% of all eSports fans are between 18 and 34 years old – with the average fan being 26 years old. This puts eSports in stark contrast to traditional sports, such as tennis where the average fan is 61 years old.

Compared to the previously discussed challenge of sharable content, the policy implications for this one aren’t straight-forward at all.  The very young age of eSports players and spectators pose the fundamental question of whether it is possible at all to regulate eSports betting advertising in a way that ensures protecting kids from its potential harm.

This brings to mind a debate which dominated the news two decades ago: alcopops. These “flavoured beverages” as the industry might have preferred to call them, were colourful and sweet alcoholic drinks which had strong appeal to children. A subsequent large public debate led to many supermarkets withdrawing alcopops and the government increasing their taxation by 40%. A few years later – 15 years to be precise – some alcopops adverts were finally banned from airing on TV due to their high appeal to kids.

The similarities to eSports are striking: in both cases a potentially harmful and addictive product was slightly altered and rebranded to expand the target group (in both cases towards young(er) people). The major difference, however, is that to date the outcry about eSports betting potentially luring kids into gambling is completely missing. But even if this debate kicked off soon, if the process is same it could take another 15 years before there is enough evidence of harm to children before a ban can be enforced. Can we wait that long?

A potential way to balance the commercial interest of gambling providers with the state´s duty to protect children from harmful content, might be a shift in the burden of proof: Why not oblige betting providers to produce substantial evidence and a clear strategy that ensures that their advertising is not inducing kids to gamble? Currently, the burden is often on academics, NGOs and journalists to point out the industry´s wrongdoings – with the gambling industry in the UK getting increasingly out of control, however, it seems to be time for a change.

Once the genie is out of the bottle…

Social media advertising has drastically altered the gambling advertising sphere in the UK since its deregulation in 2005, with possibilities that were beyond the scope and consideration of the introduced legal framework. Today, most efforts in attempting to get a grip on the social media wild west are rather damage control than harm prevention. Our findings of social media enabling gambling advertisers bombarding users with betting offers, using highly sharable content, and producing eSports betting adverts that are highly appealing to children may just be the tip of the ice-berg. The UK has let the genie out of the bottle and is now moving strongly against it.  Should other countries not take heed and leave the stopper on that bottle?

See more of Raffaello’s research interests and his aims to inform policy-makers.